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Contemporaries were horrified by the onset of the plague in the wet summer of 1348: within weeks of midsummer people were dying in unprecedented large numbers. Ralph Higden of Chester, the best known contemporary chronicler thought 'scarcely a tenth of mankind was left alive'.

His analysis of the scale of the mortality is repeated by other commentators. The phrase 'there were hardly enough living to care for the sick and bury the dead' is repeated in various sources including a chronicle compiled at St Mary's Abbey, York. 

The Malmesbury monk, writing in Wiltshire, reckoned that 'over England as a whole a fifth of men, women and children were carried to the grave'. The plague did not abate in the Winter but became even more virulent in the early months of 1349 and continued into 1350.

Chroniclers and administrators make numerous references to the extension of graveyards, for example in Bristol, and to the mass burial of bodies in pits. At Rochester (Kent) men and women cast their dead children into communal graves 'from which arose such a stench that it was barely possible to go past a churchyard'.

Modern excavation of such pits in London, near The Tower on the site of former Royal Mint and in the cathedral close at Hereford, testify to these extreme measures. In London the pits took the form of long, narrow trenches with bodies laid in orderly rows: at Hereford the evidence was of more haphazard committal to the earth.

Today we have the benefit of hindsight. We know, as fourteenth-century people suspected, that the mortality caused by the bubonic plague of the Black Death was the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world. We also know that the mortality came to an end in the first outbreak soon after 1350; contemporaries could not have known this would happen - so far as they were concerned everyone might well die. Some treated each day as if it were their last: moral and sexual codes were broken, while the marriage market was revitalised by those who had lost partners in the plague.

We also know that the plague returned regularly, first in 1361 and then in the 1370s and 1380s and, as an increasingly urban disease, right through until the Great Plague of 1665 in London. But by around 1670 it disappeared from England for over two centuries until a number of outbreaks occurred either side of 1900.

It was not until these modern outbreaks that the bacillus was identified and connection between rats and plague discovered. Despite all their best efforts people in the historic period had no remedy against the mysterious plague, except as Daniel Defoe put it, to run away from it.

Source: BBC History
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