A new archaeological study, drawing on finds from thousands of pits excavated during the past decade, reveals in detail the incredible swath of death left behind when the Black Death swept through medieval England.
Researchers, using pottery shards as a proxy for the presence of humans, calculated the decline in remnants after England was hit by the plague epidemic between 1346 and 1351.
In some locations, such as Binham in Norfolk, Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Shillington in Bedfordshire, and Great Amwell in Hertfordshire, catastrophic declines exceeded 70 per cent, according to information released by the University of Lincoln.
Millions died in England alone, and it’s estimated that half of Western Europe’s population, as many as 200 million individuals, succumbed to the plague during the period.
The research, led by Professor Carenza Lewis from the University of Lincoln and published in the journal Antiquity, indicate “eye-watering” declines in population within rural communities which are still inhabited today and generally regarded as “survivors” of the Black Death, according to the University of Lincoln.
“The new data reveal which places were most severely hit by plague, from the level of individual plots and parishes up to whole towns and counties,” the university added.
Data was gathered from more than 2,000 test-pits excavated by members of the public under professional archaeological supervision between 2005 and 2014 across the six counties of eastern England. These spanned 55 different rural settlements which are inhabited today. Deserted medieval villages were deliberately excluded from the study.
Overall there was a decline of 45 per cent in pottery finds between the high medieval (early 12th to early 14th centuries) and the late medieval period (late 14th to late 16th centuries) across the area studied.
“The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” said Lewis, an archaeologist and Professor for the Public Understanding of Research in the School of History & Heritage at the University of Lincoln.
“Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data for the period,” Lewis added.
The new research supports the emerging consensus that the population of England remained somewhere between 35 and 55 per cent below its pre-Black Death level well into the 16th century, Lewis added.
(Top: The Dance of Death, a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death, brought about in no small part by the lethality of the plague.)