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The Black Death in York - was it worse than Covid-19?

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

There are many similarities between our situation today with our Corona Virus pandemic and the Black Death of the 1300’s, not least the fact they both originated in China. (The Black Death first was recorded in China in 1346).

But now with Covid-19 raging across the world, it is worth remembering that pandemics are nothing new, with plagues being seen as just part of life in medieval times.

Even so, the Back Death which reached York in May 1349 was so virulent that its effects were devastating across Yorkshire, but particularly in York. It is believed that over half the population of York succumbed to the Black Death, but even when they thought it was under control it came back with a vengeance in 1361,1369,1375,1378 and 1390. Not just a second spike, but a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth spike.

York was one of the most important cities in England at the time, with a population according to poll tax returns of 15,000 residents. Whereas most towns lost 30-35% of their residents, towns with larger populations where people lived more closely in cramped conditions suffered worse with York’s loss of 50% of its population mirroring London. More populous cities like London and New York are suffering the same fate almost 700 years on.

At the time of the Black Death, poor hygiene and sanitation helped the disease spread, something we don’t have to worry about nowadays with clean flowing water, toilets, sewerage, soap and disinfectants. It is worth remembering, in 1349 the River Ouse was a dumping ground for all of York’s effluent and rubbish, with one of the tributaries close to the city known affectionately as “Shit Brook”. But the Ouse’s water was still used in the baking and brewing trades helping with the spread of the disease.

In York during the time of plague a few benefited, with the numbers of freemen of the city rising from 50 a year to 212 a year to fill the voids and replace those who had died. It also created many opportunities for immigrants from the country to come into the city, set up businesses and take advantage once the plague had passed.

One difference between Covid-19 and the Black Death is for some reason the Black Death targeted the healthy with the young and strong often being the hardest hit and the elderly and infirm spared.

The death rate was so high that cemeteries soon became full and plague pits had to be dug around the city for mass burials, usually located outside the city walls. One chronicler of the middle ages stated “there were barely enough living to bury the dead” and records show that over half the city’s parish priests died.

With York Minster being one of the most important religious buildings in England at the time and undergoing its transformation into the gothic masterpiece we see today, the Archbishop at the time had a particular problem with over half his workforce dying. Archbishop Zouche managed to get papal approval to consecrate extra burial grounds and to “fast track” replacement clergy. The Zouche Chapel in York Minster is now a place for quite personal prayer and contemplation away from the many visitors to the building, named in his honour.


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