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lecture notes 2017-2018

13 September 2017: The plight of human fortune and the pitilessness of death: The Black Death and the Church in Yorkshire, 1349 by Gary Brannan, Access Archivist, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York.

Gary will be familiar to many of our members in his former role as an archivist at Wakefield, and as our guide at the Borthwick Institute on a recent excursion. He has remained a member of our Society and its Council despite his move to the Borthwick a couple of years ago. Gary introduced his subject by reminding us that our venue, the Chantry Chapel, which was packed for this lecture, was a new building at the time of the Black Death.

In July 1348 Archbishop Zouche of York described the ‘great mortalities, pestilences and infections of the air’ already occurring in other parts of the country and Europe.  Here there was a sense of foreboding, with floods and earthquakes, but it was not until about February 1349 that the ‘great pestilence’ reached Yorkshire ports, quickly spreading through the Diocese of York. From 1339 this outbreak of infection had slowly moved along the great overland trade route from China, crossing Mongolia and the steppes of Russia. In Europe Genoese trading ships probably carried the disease nearer and in 1348, the disease appeared in British ports. The source of the disease seems to have been marmots, susceptible to infections of bubonic plague and able to infect the black rat, the common flea of which could transfer the disease to humans. The infection in humans was so deadly that there was little to do if it took hold but to pray. Today it is identified as a form of Yersinia Pestis, which still recurs in different parts of the world. As this plague continued to spread across the country it was seen as apocalyptic. To illustrate its impact Gary asked us to stand and turn over the A5 sheets he had distributed at the start of his talk. Those people with a picture of death sat down, the rest remained standing. Such was the loss of population in these few years, with 80 million people in Europe reduced to about 30 million -  a mortality rate of about 60%.

Gary’s research is largely based on sources at the Borthwick where he is managing a project to index  the Archbishops’ Registers for the period. He argued that registered wills made during this period are particularly useful in showing personal reactions to the proximity of death, and also providing a means of tracking the spread of the plague. As a Batley boy, Gary was delighted to find the will of  William Aberford, the Vicar of Batley, the only will from 1349 from the modern West Yorkshire.  Aberford was a member of the secular clergy and thus allowed to own goods. His will shows a spread of bequests to local institutions, the parish, the community and to specific individuals. Altogether he left a considerable sum which would have had a significant impact on the lives of his community. His will is dated between 17th and 24th May 1349, the plague year, and, although it cannot be certain that he died of the ‘pestilence’ which had arrived in York by the beginning of April 1349, it seems likely. The parish clergy were very vulnerable, many dying within a few months.

Such wills, recorded at the Archbishops’ Courts, were proved within a month in general, and thus probate instruments are another very useful source. In the York collection there are 266 of these completed between 1339-59 with a peak, of course, in July and August of 1349.  By July 1349 the Archbishop’s Registers were not entering full wills, only shortened Probate Acts, the record-keeping becoming less careful because of the loss of suitable manpower.  Gary’s map of the geographical spread of these 1349 probate records clearly shows movement inland along the river systems from coastal ports.

Gary has also referred to the Manor of Wakefield Court Rolls to explore evidence of the impact of the disease within this huge tract of the West Riding. The Court of the Manor sat every three weeks but from July to Oct 1349 there are no entries. Although the pestilence is not directly mentioned there are later entries relating to property which indicate high mortality, and the value of the Manor’s mills and other annual fees dropped by more than half between 1342 and 1350. From an unpublished study of the rolls Gary found that women became more visible after the plague years, with a third of debt cases involving widows trying to collect what they were owed. The loss of life was immense but for survivors opportunities emerged, for example workers could demand more because of the shortage of labour. The miracle of survival had created a world with new possibilities.

Despite the subject matter, Gary’s talk was very entertaining with audience participation, lively background exposition, and stories of individuals. Ever the archivist, Gary showed us fleeting glimpses of the different types of documents he had used, the writing and language indecipherable to most of us, but he skilfully revealed their possibilities for research through meticulous and imaginative analysis and presentation of findings. These led to - inevitably tentative - but convincing hypotheses about the impact of the Black Death in our region.

Questions included reference to the skeletons of victims of this pandemic unearthed during the recent Crossrail construction in London.  The mortality among the upper echelons of society it seems was less extreme, perhaps because of their better general health and nourishment, and their greater mobility.