The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer

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The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A portrait of Britain between 1346 and 1381, beginning with the eve of the arrival of the Black Death, then following the aftermath of the epidemic and its effects on the next generation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099548836

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The mid-fourteenth century was an unsettled time for England. It was an age which saw the first phases of the protracted Hundred Years’ War with France, and the Scottish war of independence, which came to an end with the capture of King David II. As if these events were not enough, in 1346 there was the first case of a man in Europe contracting an unknown disease that rapidly swept across the continent, claiming the lives of millions, and one medieval chronicler noted that the bodies looked like a macabre lasagne: corpses piled row upon row separated only by layers of dirt.

It reached Britain and Ireland two years later. Unlike other pandemics, such as the outbreak of Spanish influenza at the end of the First World War, the pestilence claimed the lives of almost everyone (if not everyone) who developed the symptoms, and some estimates place the number of British dead at around two million, half the population of the time. It was more or less gone within two years, though there would be further mild recurrences of what was known at the time as the ‘forine dethe’ over the next three decades or so.

In this book Gummer paints a vivid, fearsome picture of a country and society ravaged by the plague, with a wealth of detail about specific incidents in various areas. There were no quarantine regulations at the time, and we read of incidents such as a ship carrying wine from Bordeaux arriving at Melcombe Regis, Dorset, with several infected sailors and crew on board. Within a month, many of the villagers had died as well. Britain was obviously defenceless against such incidents.

Communities were gripped by fear, with healthy people developing the symptoms and succumbing almost at once. The disease spread paranoia, with some desperate remedies being taken. Sometimes houses were boarded up with survivors still inside, in order to try and halt its march. Villagers might steal clothes from the dead bodies of their neighbours, and needless to say often perish themselves as a result. When the graveyards were full at Winchester, the Bishop had to consecrate an extension to the cathedral cemetery. Unfortunately he chose a site which had long been used by the townsmen as a market place, and they were so infuriated by his decision that they attacked a monk who was burying one of the dead, beat him, and took the body away, dumping it on the town tip. In Norwich, four of the city’s fifty-one churches were abandoned for lack of parishioners. Maybe East Anglia escaped more lightly than other areas, for further north in Jarrow, 78% of the tenants died.

After it had burnt itself out in 1350, notwithstanding subsequent minor recurrences, life returned to normal. Trade continued, rural estates recovered, and the war with France was resumed. There were minor changes in society, such as improvements in general sanitation, with King Edward III ordering that human and other filth had to be cleared up regularly from the streets of London. On a lighter note, it was reported that women began to wear their hair up but uncovered, exposing the flesh of their neck for men to see. Such immodesty shocked the monks as much as male fashions of short jackets and ill-fitting hose, which left little undefined, provoking fears that with such immorality the Lord’s vengeance would surely follow. One can argue that much of this would have happened anyway, plague or no plague. Even so, the author argues that social upheavals such as the Great Rebellion, or the Peasants’ Revolt, in 1381 were accentuated rather than caused by the epidemic.

Throughout the narrative, there is also much about contemporary trade, architecture, and religion. There is also the ever-present backdrop of war with France, and of the King’s varying fortunes in the conflict. Like other families he also suffered bereavement; the death of his consort, Queen Philippa, may have been as a result of the recurrence in 1369, and he waited until it had passed over before holding her funeral. It might be noted that only five of their twelve children survived her.

Altogether, this paints a lively yet stark picture in words of medieval society, where Kings and bishops often suffered as much as the peasants in a battle for survival against an enemy they did not understand and with which they were powerless to deal.

Our thanks to Vintage Books for sending Bookbag a review copy. If you enjoyed this, for more on the same period why not try The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer.

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Buy The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer at


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