HIS101 logo Background to
The Impact of the Black Death
by Henry Knighton

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
Return to the Syllabus


Almost nothing is known of Henry Knighton except that he was an Augustinian canon (trained, but not ordained as a priest) at St. Mary's of Leicester (England), who died about 1396. He was also a historian and known for two works, a history of England from 1066 (the year of the French Norman victory over the Anglo-Saxons of England) to 1366, and a chronicle of events that took place late in his own lifetime from 1377 to 1395. Most of his history was simply a compilation of work by earlier writers, but beginning in 1337, he included detailed observations about his own era. This reading contains an excerpt that describes the plague that struck the British Isles between 1348 and 1350.




Plagues (large-scale epidemics of infectious disease) have appeared throughout history wherever people travelled long distances in large numbers. The Old Testament describes plagues in Egypt and Palestine, and Roman historians reported plagues associated with their military campaigns against the Parthians. Although climate and distance provided Europeans with some protection against epidemic diseases from Asia, the Crusades introduced a number of plagues to Europe even before the 14th century. But the "Black Death" of the mid-14th century was an international phenomenon that crossed Asia to the Black Sea and spread to the west via sea trading routes in the Mediterranean.

For a number of reasons, European medical knowledge in the 14th century was completely inadequate to deal with the plague. For example, in 1300 Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull (an order from the pope) that prohibited the dissection of human corpses, so surgeons were unskilled and had little relevant knowledge about how the body's systems worked. As a result, no one really understood how the plague acted and spread. After the plague began, medical faculty at the University of Paris blamed the plague on astrological events (the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars on 20 March 1345 at 1pm). Another theory was a little closer to the truth -- that the plague was caused by the "corruption" of the atmosphere -- and that led to efforts to purify the air. Wealthy people like Pope Clement burned fires continuously to cleanse the air in the Papal palace, while poorer people, who could not afford the fuel, resorted to inhaling the fumes of urine in the hope that it would prevent infection.

Public authorities also took measures to stop the plague. Since the plague killed faster where people lived closer together, city governments made the most extensive efforts. Many closed their gates and refused to admit outsiders, and port cities refused to allow ships to land. Some prohibited funerals and the transport of corpses, and closed courts, markets and businesses to prevent gatherings. In one case, the government of Milan (northern Italy) even went so far as to seal up houses where people had died of the plague.


A plague doctor.  Note that the doctor's body is
completely covered with leather and heavy cloth.  The nose 
piece contained herbs intended to
purify the air inhaled by the doctor


Because of the Black Death, it became harder and harder to find doctors or priests because they were exposed to the plague most often and they died in large numbers. The resulting shortage is evident from Henry Knighton's account, as well as from other documents like a contract that has survived between a doctor and the city of Pavia in Italy. It provides many details about conditions during a later episode of the plague in 1479, and reveals something about the motivations of both the doctor and the town.

In exchange for a monthly salary of 30 florins, plus a house and all living expenses, the doctor (named Master Ventura) agreed to handle all plague patients and to visit them as often as three times a day. Thirty florins was a substantial amount of money, since the mayor of Pavia received only 45 florins per month, while a skilled worker would have been lucky to earn five florins in a month.

Given the great risk of becoming a doctor in a city during the plague, thirty florins was probably not enough to explain Master Ventura's choice. He may have viewed the job as an opportunity to become a citizen of Pavia which, if he survived, would have provided him with access to wealthier patients than he would have found in the rural countryside.

Photo caption: A plague doctor. His body was completely covered with leather and/or heavy cloth to protect him against infection. The nose piece contains herbs that were intended to purify the air he inhaled.


There were also many individual reactions to the plague, and the conditions and details were frequently quite gruesome. The symptoms of the plague (in order of appearance) included a headache and weakness, followed by aches and chills in the upper legs and groin. After that, the tongue became coated and speech slurred, while the patient suffered from confusion, apathy, and fatigue. On the third day, swelling occurred at the location of the flea bite, and after that, the nervous system deteriorated. On the fourth or fifth day, the patient was "overcome by anxiety and terror." Death usually followed.

The human responses to this sort of death can be roughly divided into two categories, debauchery or contemplation. Some people decided that all was lost and did things that they would not have done otherwise, while others tried to prepare themselves for death and, hopefully, salvation. Some people avoided all human contact, while others panicked and ran everywhere, spreading the plague. Because the plague came in the middle of a century that was dominated by the Great Schism of the Roman papacy and the Hundred Years War, many people interpreted the plague as a sign that their god was displeased. They placed the sign of the cross over their doors, entered seclusion for prayer, or, in the case of the town leaders of Orvieto (Italy), added fifty religious holidays to the calendar. Some individuals even went so far as to become flagellants in the hope of gaining salvation, since death seemed certain and the Church had no answers. Some people experienced sudden death, while others died after 4-5 days and others recovered. Most confusing, the chance of death appeared unrelated to Christian teachings on human behavior. Just like in war (ex: New Kingdom Egypt after the Hyksos invasion), "good" people sometimes died while "bad" people lived and even prospered.

The plague had enormous consequences in Europe (and presumably everywhere else). Europe's population declined by as much as one fourth as a result of the Black Death of 1348-1349, and by one to two thirds in the period from 1300 to 1450. The number of deaths were greatest in major trading cities, while England and Scandinavia in northern Europe were relatively plague-free. One byproduct of the high death rate among doctors was the rapid advance in medical knowledge after the plague. Universities that taught medicine in cities like Padua (Italy) and Oxford (England) accepted many new students after the plague, and they were more willing to accept new ideas. One consequence was the translation of Greek and Latin medical texts into local languages, giving more people a chance to study medicine. Master Ventura (mentioned above), who came from the eastern Italian countryside, is an example of someone who probably benefitted from that.

By reducing the population, the plague left fewer people to buy food and to work. That affected the price of food and other necessities, and it also affected the "price" of labor (wages). At first, agricultural prices dropped sharply because there were too few laborers to plant and harvest, and little incentive to plant in the spring when one expected to die before the harvest in the fall. Low farm prices hurt the nobility the most, because their wealth was based on the ownership of land whose value depended on the crops that their peasants (a.k.a. serfs) produced. The peasants who survived benefitted somewhat, because they could get more for their labor due to the shortage of laborers. Nobles had to reduce the feudal dues (customary payments) that they usually collected from their peasants, and even offer incentives to keep them from leaving, since peasants who were unhappy could find work in towns or on the land of other nobles. Ultimately, the plague contributed to the end of serfdom because nobles became so desperate for labor that they stopped capturing and returning serfs who escaped from other nobles.

In general, European agricultural production rebounded after the plague more quickly than the population, because the reduced population abandoned farming on marginal land and the survivors took advantage of better land. That allowed them to produce more with the same amount of labor, and produced an increase in disposable income that provided a market for luxury goods. That enriched skilled craft people and favored the growth of the towns, home to the urban bourgeoisie.

After the plague subsided, there was also a rise in religious and social unrest (like the English Peasants' Revolt. The prestige of feudal leaders declined because many feudal lords died, leading to an increase in warfare to settle disputes over the succession of leaders. Many members of the clergy also died or were discredited by their behavior during the plague.


  1. Where did the Black Death first reach England? What path did it follow?
  2. What effect did the plague have on the price of goods? Why? Was the effect the same for all types of goods?
  3. What effect did the plague have on the Catholic Church?
  4. Henry Knighton knew more about the effects of the plague in southern France than anywhere else except England. Where did he get his information?
Return to the Syllabus