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Plagues are a topical subject at the moment and worth exploring as it can bring out some local aspects as well as inform the regional or national pattern. The first one that we know of happened early in the Middle Ages, in the memorable year of 664 AD after the total solar eclipse of May first and the Synod of Whitby sometime that same year. Our knowledge of the contagious and deadly nature of this infection comes from Lastingham (Ryedale), where Cedd and 29 out of the 30 monks died of the plague in October. Cedd had been a negotiator at the synod and some have speculated that he contracted the disease at Whitby, since the synod had been a gathering place of bishops and abbots from across England. Recurrences of the plague continued over the next 20 years but we have no further information for this area.
The more famous plague of 1348/9 appears to have arrived in our area in the late spring of 1349 but it was known that it was spreading across Europe. In 1348, the archbishop of York instructed the clergy to pray and hold processions as ‘mortality, pestilence and infection of the air are threatening various parts of the world, and especially England’. That winter, there were great floods in York followed by the ‘mortal pestilence’. The evidence that the north-east coast was struck hard comes from the archbishop’s register where it is recorded that Brother Hugh, Archbishop of Damascus, was commissioned on 26 June 1349 to dedicate a cemetery at Egton chapel. The urgency of these commissions is demonstrated when he is instructed to dedicate ‘in haste’ cemeteries at Fulford (York), Cleasby (Stanwick), Wilton (Kirkleatham), Seamer (Hutton Rudby), Brotton (Skelton), Barton (Gilling), and Easby (Stokesley) in July and August.
These places mentioned were all location of settlements that had chapels without burial rights because these were invested in the parish church. In the case of Egton, Lythe had a cemetery but was about seven miles away and it suggests that there were so many deaths that to undertake the walk across the moors was too much of a burden on the people. This does not imply that Whitby escaped infection but that the parish church there and those at Sneaton, Lythe, Hinderwell, Easington, Danby coped with the number of burials from their chapelries.
It seems odd that an archbishop of Damascus was in York in the 14th century, however, he was a suffragan, i.e. an assistant to the archbishop of York to carry out some of the latter’s duties. I suspect that it was a grand title given to a local priest (not monk – only bishops could consecrate churches and cemeteries) that harked back to the crusades to the Middle East.
Again, as in the 7th century, this was not a one-off event but the first of a series. Recurrences were recorded in the following years and decades, actually centuries and it still exists today. Some were more deadly than others and it is thought that 30% to 40% of the population died during the 1348/9 outbreak. The effect of these deaths after famines earlier in the century (1317-22) was profound because labour shortages meant that lords had great difficulty retaining those workers tied to the land. They tried with legislation but that had limited results. There was no or little population growth for several centuries and it is thought that the population numbers of 1300 was not achieved again until about 1700. However, there is evidence of an increase in standards of living and disposable income.
We cannot put any names to the people in our area who were affected by the plague but we can get an understanding that and how they wanted to mourn their relatives.
This article is one of an occasional series about the impact of Covid on our local communities. If you would be interested in sharing your own experiences, we would love to hear from you!