By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
On the eve of the arrival of the Black Death in Walsham, England, the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds was a thriving scholastic community that housed some 70 to 80 monks. It had one of the finest libraries in the land, and scholars and Church officials regularly traveled there to study and consult the manuscripts that were held in its library.
News of Death Spreads Fast
The regular visits by people who traveled throughout England and came from abroad meant that there was a stable communication network in place. And that meant Welsham was one of those places that would have received the horrifying news about the Black Death long before the plague actually arrived there .
John Hatcher, in his study of Walsham that hovers somewhere between history and fiction, imagines that the parish priest of Walsham—given the name Master John by Hatcher—would have most likely made regular visits to Bury St. Edmunds and that this is where he would have first heard the news—most likely just before Christmas time in 1347.
It’s very likely that Master John and the inhabitants of Walsham held out a reasonable hope that whatever this disease was, its outbreak would be over soon, or it would spare their community. In 1348, however, the news became ever more dire.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Good Communication Is Key
The archbishops of Canterbury and York each wrote letters about the plague that were to be circulated throughout England and read out in various parish churches. In these missives, the writers stressed that it was by now common knowledge that a deadly plague was making its way across Europe; its arrival in England was to be expected at almost any moment.
It’s important to note here that these letters were written in English, which was an extreme step indeed. Most correspondence and ecclesiastical matters were recorded in Latin, which was the language of learning and the Church. It was expected that religious leaders would perform Masses and read important missives in Latin and then would translate and comment for the benefit of those listening.
This ensured that everything important would be mediated by the Church. In other words, it was expected that the Church would explain to people not just what was being said, but how it should be understood. The fact that these letters skipped this mediating step is one of the clearest indicators of just how worried those in power were.
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Tick Tock…Until Arrival of the Black Plague
For a period of several months, rumors of infection began to filter back to the city—first from locales far away, then from London. And then in February 1349 came the news that there had been about 20 sudden deaths in the nearby manor of Lakenheath, which was just 30 miles west of Walsham. Lakenheath had trade connections along the river Ouse, which is probably how the infection found its way in.
The manor of Eyke recorded 24 deaths between early February and late March. For the same period, the manor of Aldham recorded 10; Layham Manor had noted an extremely high 32 deaths by April.
And then, it was time for Lent. The religious rituals of fasting and prayer, of asking for forgiveness of sins, must have seemed to be of particular urgency during the Lenten season of 1349. Ash Wednesday fell on February 25th that year, right around the same time that nearby communities started to record plague deaths. From what we can tell, Walsham managed to avoid the plague for most of Lent, but just before Easter day—disaster.
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The Sudden Easter Day Strike
At the Walsham Manor court of March 6, it was recorded that there had been no deaths since the last court hearing of about two months before. At the next session, which was held on June 15th, there were 103 recorded deaths. The population was around 1,000–1,100 people, so this would then seem to be a mortality rate of around 10 percent—pretty good in a world where elsewhere half the population was dying of the Black Death.
But those numbers only record heads of households. If the evidence of the plague is any indicator, then where one family member succumbed to the Black Death, so did most others.
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Walsham: Let’s Get On With Life
In the weeks that followed, those still living at Walsham attempted to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. This proved easier said than done, as the shortage of laborers everywhere not only made working the land difficult but also made filling key positions on the manor hard.
The key to a successful and profitable manor was an honest and competent reeve or overseer. Walsham’s reeve—along with several other officials—had died. According to court records, in the High Hall proceedings in 1350, one John Packard was elected reeve of the estate. He refused to accept the position, for reasons that have been lost to us.
It may have had something to do with the fact that, in the aftermath of the plague, getting a manor like Walsham up and running at full strength was likely to be an overwhelming endeavor. What happened at Walsham was a microcosm of what was happening throughout England and the rest of the medieval world at that time.
Common Questions about How Walsham Dealt With the Arrival of the Black Death
The main reason was that the Bury St. Edmunds monastery in Walsham received many visitors from around the country and abroad. This meant the news of the arrival of the Black Death got there much sooner than the plague itself.
The inhabitants of Walsham and Master John held out reasonable hope that the outbreak of the Black Death would be over soon.
It was expected that their letters, warning of the inevitable arrival of the Black Death in England, would be in Latin like the other letters they sent out. But this showed how important the message was so less time would be spent by religious leaders trying to translate them for the common people.