Huge plague pit discovered in London – Black Death victims

There’s now no doubt that a grisly discovery in London is a mass grave of Black Death victims from the 14th century.  For those of you in the United States and elsewhere, there has already been news and documentary coverage in the UK and I’m sure you will hear more about this very soon.

The skeletons were discovered in Charterhouse Square – what would have once been the outskirts of the medieval city of London and the site of a huge monastic complex.  It was also close to Smithfield – or the Smooth Field – which aside from being a livestock market was also an execution ground (Braveheart came to a sticky end there).

Just over a dozen remains were found initially during construction of London’s new rail link – Crossrail.  DNA evidence revealed that they were victims of Yersinia Pestis – better known as the bubonic plague and the outbreak between the years 1348 to 1350, termed the Black Death.  In recent years, it was questioned whether or not the Black Death was bubonic plague – a condition that still exists in some parts of the world – but scientific advances now affirm categorically that it was bubonic plague.

It’s estimated that up to 60% of the English died during this plague and a documentary on Channel Four last night suggested that famine had already weakened the population’s ability to resist the disease.  The skeletons show evidence of malnutrition and poverty related disease suggesting that for ordinary Londoners, daily life was pretty grim.

Here is an image of the point at which the bodies were discovered in a work shaft for the new rail system.

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Thirteen Black Death skeletons found in London

Thirteen skeletons have been unearthed in the Farringdon area of London – believed to be victims of the fourteenth century Black Death. The terrible plague hit England in the period after the Knights Templar were disbanded and swept away entire villages and half the population in towns. London did not escape and was ravaged by King Death around 1348 to 1350.

The skeletons were unearthed during excavations for a new rail link across the capital called Crossrail. It proves the existence of a graveyard that chroniclers in the Middle Ages called a “no mans land” but had never actually been seen. The company put out a statement this week:

During the past two weeks, Crossrail’s archaeologists uncovered 13 skeletons 2.5 metres below the road that surrounds the gardens in Charterhouse Square. The depth of the burials, the pottery dated up until 1350 found in the graves and the layout of the skeletons all point to the likelihood that these skeletons were buried in Charterhouse Square during the Black Death Plague around 1349. The graves have been laid out in a similar formation as skeletons discovered in a Black Plague burial site in east Smithfield in the 1980s.

The skeletons are being carefully excavated and taken to the Museum of London Archaeology for laboratory testing. The scientists are hoping to map the DNA signature of the Plague bacteria and possibly contribute to the discussion regarding what caused the Black Death. The bones may also be radio carbon dated to try and establish the burial dates.

Plague cannot survive for very long in the soil. After 650 years, only the skeleton bones remain and do not present any modern-day health risk.

The skeletons at the bottom of the construction shaft
The skeletons at the bottom of the construction shaft

Plague – what exactly happened when the Black Death came to town?

Decameron. Plague
Decameron. Plague 

Plague. The silent killer of the Middle Ages terrified people and rightly so. Medicine was rudimentary and in the face of a viral assassin like the Bubonic Plague – largely useless. Prayer was a common recourse but if you were wealthy, another avenue was presented by simply running away.

This is what the heroes of The Decameron – a fourteenth century book – do. Seven women and three men flee to a villa outside plague-ridden Florence and tell ten stories each – 100 stories in total – as they wait for the plague to abate.

The Decameron was written by an Italian writer called Boccaccio who saw the Black Death with his own eyes – and like many of his class and standing, the pestilence made him question the authority of the church and Rome. There is a very disrespectful and sarcastic attitude towards priests and friars that might surprise a modern reader.

Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies“. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.

Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”.  Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”

It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.

“The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.”

Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.

The movie ‘Black Death‘ came and went faster than the plague itself and some critics thought it stank just as bad. However, I haven’t seen it and I’ll confess to being curious. Here is the trailer.

Medieval magic treatments for disease

Illustration of the Black Death from the Togge...
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411) 

In a programme for Channel 4 and National Geographic, presenter Tony Robinson has been investigating medieval superstitions and in one recent episode – he looked at disease.  Why did our ancestors believe illness was caused by demons, elves, sprites and even God himself?

In Anglo-Saxon England, people believed sudden sharp pains were caused by arrows from elves – or ‘elf-shot’. Have you ever thought about the phrase ‘shooting pain‘ or ‘stabbing pain’ and even the idea of a ‘stroke’. The arrows that elves used were often thought to be tipped with stone arrow heads. Why? Because Anglo-Saxons picked up neolithic arrow heads in the forest and not knowing what they were (as their arrowheads were made of metal), thought the stone ones must be from the elves.

The sort of diseases caused by elves were anything resulting in fever or madness – like malaria.

But elves were as nothing compared to evil spirits. They entered in to your body – and your head – and turned you mad. Even in the Roman Empire – people had their skulls bored in to with a surgical knife to release an evil spirit from a patient’s head. Some of these skulls have been found with perfectly round holes.

Epilepsy would have been diagnosed as possession – as would brain tumours. Incredibly, some people survived these brain operations with flint tools – and bizarrely, releasing pressure in the head – albeit for the wrong reasons – actually saved the patient.

Demons were another risk for the patient. They got in to your body by morphing into food or odours or smoke. Pungent smells were associated with the devil – a miasma that had emanated from hell. Plague was seen as infected air from bad objects that entered your body and corrupted it. Food rotted because the devil had touched it. Sniffing infected flesh was enough to give you plague.

This is why people sought good smells – herbs like rosemary – that would protect you. In plague conditions, people would walk round with a kind of cowl or helmet with a long bird beak that was packed with herbs. This strange bird suit was believed to stop you catching the plague and those wearing these costumes, often physicians, would go round perfuming houses affected by plague.

If perfume wasn’t felt to be strong enough – they would use vinegar and in extreme cases, they would even mix herbs with gunpowder and let off perfume bombs in people’s houses. Ironically, the bird suit did save the physicians but only because they weren’t bitten by the fleas that were really causing the plague. The smells had nothing to do with it.

Waking up in the Middle Ages and feeling off colour in the morning was often deemed to have been caused by sin. If you had a venereal disease then sin was clearly the case. But pimples, soreness and aches might also be attributed to sinfulness – you just had to figure out what sin you had committed and start repenting.

Repentance could involve fasting, which would actually weaken your body further. In the fourteenth century, those living in communities stricken with the Black Death took to flogging their own bodies. You told your flesh, by striking it, that your soul was in control of your body and therefore you were nearer to the angels than the animals.

In medieval times, nothing was known about germs and bacteria. When we infect somebody else, we know we still have the disease ourselves. But in the Middle Ages, they believed in ‘transference’. If I got better, it was because I’d passed or transferred the disease on to somebody else. In other words, there was a limited amount of disease around which never disappeared – I just had to get it to pass out of my body to somebody else.

That somebody else could be dead! So, if I had a cyst or sore – I might ask an executioner to cut down a recently hanged man and get his cold, dead hand stroked against my cyst or sore. The dead criminal would then take it with him to hell. But I might try it with the living – and the method could be quite bizarre.

If I had a wart, for example, I would rub a snail on my horrible growth and then leave the snail in a bag hung up somewhere for a stranger to pick up. When he picked it up – he would get the wart!

And I might try and transfer the strength of the healthy in to myself to cure my weakness. A Celtic story tells of a warrior injured by a spear so the treatment was to transfer strength from…a whole herd of cows!!! His followers therefore slaughtered the entire herd and mixed their meat, marrow and bone together to save this one life. A very expensive treatment by the way – rather like bathing in champagne. The warrior, by the way, had to lie in this mixture for three days!

So did any medieval treatment actually work? Apart from accidental discoveries – one of the most powerful positive aspects of medicine in this period was its powerful placebo effect. Medicine was primarily about faith over science. That obviously limits it hugely. But, human beings are odd creatures. The belief that one is being cured can be an effective treatment with certain conditions on its own.

How the plague ravaged medieval London

blackdeath_mainYou could spend a ghoulish holiday in London searching out its plague pits and forgotten cemeteries – if you wanted to.

Good way to start would be to buy the book ‘Necropolis’ which is an excellent primer on where to find London’s dead from centuries past.

Basically, as you shop round the West End or walk round Westminster, they’re under your feet.  Some are even in the walls of churches.  And there are huge plague pits under office blocks and green parks.

London is full of dead people.

Danse-Macabre-Italian-frescoIf you went to the Tower of London, you could take in the graves of the beheaded in the church by the scaffold within its walls.  But after leaving, go past the Royal Mint and up a road called East Smithfield.  You will already be tramping over the bodies of the dead from the 14th century Black Death.  Most of this huge cemetery is underneath the courtyard of the Royal Mint.

These poor unfortunates succumbed to a massive attack of the bubonic plague, carried by rats, that devastated a third of the population of Europe.  Some dispute the disease in question saying it was Ebola and was transmitted human to human.  Recent research interestingly suggests that healthy people could survive this plague more easily than previously thought while those already a bit frail, were much more likely to die.

black_deathCharterhouse Square near Farringdon Station was also another site of a medieval plague pit.   The dead would also have been buried around the City of London’s many churches or even within the walls.  These churchyards were extended even further when many of the medieval churches were consumed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

However, by the 19th century, the overcrowded cemeteries were a health hazard and the Victorians built huge out of town graveyards.  The previous cemeteries round the churches were gradually claimed by office buildings.  So if you work for a financial institution in the City, you are more than likely sitting above hundreds of medieval dead.

The medieval dead, by the way, were more often than not buried in cloth wrapping or in the case of the plague dead, just chucked in to a pit wearing nothing but the clothes they died in.   Exhumation to make way for new bodies was standard practice right up to the 19th century.  There are horrible stories of bodies being ‘mulched’ to make way for the recently deceased.  Underneath church floors, there was often an extremely tight squeeze – very cosy!

Other plague pits you could visit include one at 37-39 Artillery Lane excavated in 1976.  There is a park in south London called Blackheath where there are undoubtedly plague dead beneath the lovely grass but the park does NOT derive its name from the Black Death – a common misconception among Londoners.  The name was recorded two hundred years before the Black Death and probably refers to the colour of the soil.

One Londoner, Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote about a much later plague in 1665 that had an appalling impact on London.  Defoe was a journalist and a writer and in his diary of the plague year, he described the great pits that consumed the dead:

I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug – for such it was, rather than a pit.

They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did: for, the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. I doubt not but there may be some ancient persons alive in the parish who can justify the fact of this, and are able to show even in what place of the churchyard the pit lay better than I can. The mark of it also was many years to be seen in the churchyard on the surface, lying in length parallel with the passage which goes by the west wall of the churchyard out of Houndsditch, and turns east again into Whitechappel, coming out near the Three Nuns’ Inn.

Season of the Witch – Nicholas Cage and the Templars

Just downloaded this as couldn’t bring myself to see it in the cinema after some pretty bad reviews.  So what do I think?

season-of-the-witchWell, it starts with the trial of three witches on a bridge.  They are cast off said bridge with nooses round their necks and die instantly.  A considerably more humane approach to hanging than was the norm at the time.  A hanging in the Middle Ages tended to involve prolonged strangulation and a bit of dancing by the dying criminal for the crowd’s entertainment.  Witches were more likely to be dunked in the water to see if they floated as part of a trial by ordeal.  Then they’d be burnt.  The witch burning mania in Europe was more a product of the 16th and 17th centuries than the Middle Ages by the way.

Anyway – at the risk of publishing a spoiler – one of the witches comes back to life and kills the priest who condemned her.  So – this isn’t social realism.

The movie is set in the Crusades but then early fourteenth century dates flash up – wrong of course.  I assume the reason for this duff chronology is that the dates should be closer to the Black Death because there is a strong plague theme in the movie.  By the early 1300s, the Crusades were pretty much over – Acre had fallen in the Holy Land – and the Templars had been disbanded.  But that doesn’t stop movie stars Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman playing Templar knights – who get drunk and carouse with women in their spare time.  So much for the monastic vows of the Knights Templar.

As usual, Ron Perlman delivers his lines as if English wasn’t his first language (is it?) and while other characters speak Medieval-ese, Perlman delivers macho one-liners that I think he last used in Alien Resurrection.  The two heroes leave the Templars but continuously refer to quitting “the service of the church”.   Now, I don’t know what rogue Templars would really have said but I’m guessing they would have quite “the service of the Order” as church and Templars were not necessarily synonymous.

It may even be that they’re not intended to be Templars – strictly speaking.  There is a scene round the camp fire where Cage says they were made holy knights for two years by the church in return for the remission of sins.  That’s not how you became a Templar.  But in the earlier battle scenes, they dress in what can only be described as Templar-esque mantles.  I dunno – go figure.

There is an amusing character called Hagemar the Swindler who has been put in the stocks for selling false relics – including the tale of the ass ridden by Mary in the biblical flight from Egypt.  I did laugh at that.

Great anachronistic line from Nicholas Cage after knocking out a witch with the pommel of his sword, he says – “now she’s sedated”.   Six hundred years before the invention of the modern anesthetic.  This witch – or alleged witch if you prefer – has apparently brought the plague to a kingdom.  Perlman and Cage must transport this wicked woman to a monastery to be exorcised.  And so begins the long second act of the film.

Anyway – enough spoilers – it’s not that bad.  But don’t expect a classy movie.  Just a diverting evening in with some popcorn.