The Marker of Epidemic Death in Memory and Culture…

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Halesowen Manor Court Roll, When in a case regarding inheritance in the village of Oldbury the ‘first pestilence’ is referred to in the late 1360s. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346347.

Ever since I completed my BA degree my research has tended to hinge upon the Black Death. My research has often focused on teh changes which the Black Death did or did not bring to the Medieval English Countryside. Usually my conclusions were teh that effects were sweeping, momentous and vast, reaching into all areas of daily life, how people made their living, how people changed their perceptions of the world around them, which is also reflected in art, architecture, as well as written culture. Because the changes post the first arrival of the Black Death were so vast, the Black Death itself became a marker, an identifiable point in time when the clocks stopped, when everything seemed to collapse and then restart. How could it have been otherwise? When between 40 and 80 % of the population in your village is wiped out time stops, those left are traumatised and working to re-orientate themselves in a very different landscape. They have to reshape their lives around those empty spaces left by their departed loved ones and neighbours, people, whom they watched die in front of them, not hidden away in a sterile hospital, but in their cottages, their houses. One after another. The marker left was of direct relevance to the survivors and the next two generations or so which followed. It is a marker for us still. certainly for us historians, there was the time pre and post Black Death. It is all too easy to see teh Black Death with a degree of morbid fascination, followed by meaningless statistical data, which is devoid of humanity. Historians are sometimes guilty of talking in terms of ‘demographics’, rather than ‘people’, and this matters, ‘demographic decline’ sounds so much more clinical and acceptable than thousands of people died an agonising death. We feel that we need to pretend at being scientific and ‘objective’, but such scientific ‘objectivity’ can only surely be acceptable in the context of the first arrival of Yersinia Pestis because it happened such a long time ago.

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Extract of the list of some of those who died in the Black Death in the mid 14th century at the manor of Halesowen, 1349. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346 322.

For me, however, it does not seem so. I work almost daily with manorial court records which bring the men, women and children of England’s medieval villages to life. I see their agencies in buying land, arguing in teh local alehouse and hitting each other with agricultural implements. I see that many of them cared fro their relatives and their animals with whom they lived closely together. their lives were real. these were people and not statistics. When I look though the court rolls of Halesowen, as I have done last week, and I come upon the list of those tenants who died in the Black Death, and it makes me so sad that those people who only a few months ago were trading, arguing, buying, selling, agreeing, negotiating and caring had suddenly stopped mid – track. I see those lists of the dead and it fills me with a sense of responsibility as a historian. These people were not statistics , impersonal ‘demographies’, but real human beings. For the survivors of Halesowen, the arrival of this terrible mortality left a memory marker, to be referred to in future years as ‘the first pestilence’, which was the worst, the main agent of change.

 

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