The bones of 16 people recently discovered during the building of the Cross rail project in the Farringdon area of London has prompted interest in the calamity known as the Black Death of 1348-50. The plague was a disaster so unprecedented and so great that it engraved itself on the collective memory for generations to come. The Black Death's origins were in China and the disease progressed along the “Silk Route” of Central Asia into Europe. The legend is that the disease appeared in Weymouth carried on board a ship from Genoa in May 1348. Having arrived it spread out quickly spreading far and wide ravaging the population of the British Isles for a period of 18 months. Most communities for which evidence exists suffered grievously. Among historians the consensus suggests that a mortality rate of between 40-50% amongst the wider population would not be improbable. The traditional view is that the bacteria was carried by fleas on the bodies of rodents. A modern radical interpretation however opposes this view suggesting that the illness was carried by an Ebola like virus. A series of poor harvests also weakened the general population.
The signs of the plague manifested itself as a contemporary writer describes “the plague takes three forms. In the first people suffer an infection of the lungs, which leads to breathing difficulties. Whoever has this corruption or contamination to any extent cannot escape, but will die within two days. Another form boils erupt under the armpits,...a third form in which people of both sexes are attacked in the groin”
The plague arrived in Staffordshire from the South West .It also spread along the River Trent quickly with Burton suffering badly. In the Archdeaconry of Stafford the first priest died in April 1349. Rents at Croxden and Hulton Abbeys halved which is an indicator of population loss. In Derbyshire and Cheshire the death rate amongst the clergy took on serious proportions in June. It took 500 days for the pestilence to cover the full length of England. Scotland was so long exempt that the Scots, proud of their immunity, were wont to swear “by the foul death of England”. In 1350 they gathered together an army in Ettrick Forest with the object of invading the plague-stricken border shires. But the pestilence fell upon the assembled army, and all war was stopped while Scotland was devastated as was Ireland and Wales. Further plagues visited the country in the 1360s and 1375. Many villages were abandoned, fields untended and churches had no clergy to minister to the people. To the Medieval mind it must have felt that the end of the world had come.