In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 12/14/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, takingmillion lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren -- the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure -- are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths. Now, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together the most recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative.

Author Biography

Norman F. Cantor is Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University.

Table of Contents

Biomedical Contextp. 1
All Fall Downp. 3
Rodents and Cattlep. 11
Peoplep. 27
Bordeaux Is Burningp. 29
Lord and Peasantsp. 63
Death Comes to the Archbishopp. 101
Women and Men of Propertyp. 123
The Jewish Conspiracyp. 147
Historyp. 169
Serpents and Cosmic Dustp. 171
Heritage of the African Riftsp. 185
Aftermathp. 201
Knowing About the Black Death: A Critical Bibliographyp. 221
Acknowledgmentsp. 231
Indexp. 233
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


Women and Men of Property

Ninety percent of the wealth of England in 1340 lay in land. Of this land perhaps 40 percent was owned by the king and the royal family and the high aristocracy that usually carried the titles of duke, earl, baron, or simply "lord." Another 30 percent of the land was held by ecclesiastical officers and corporations. This left nearly 30 percent of the land to be owned by the rural upper middle class, who came to be called gentry in the fifteenth century. At most 2 percent was in the hands of free peasants, later called yeomen.

In England before the Black Death there were probably around half a million people in the gentry class, including women and children. By 1400 the gentry comprised half that number. Their family incomes varied as greatly as those of the American middle class today: anywhere from the equivalent of fifty thousand dollars a year in today's money to three or four million dollars a year. The lesser gentry were sometimes called esquires, an obsolete military term. Perhaps half of the upper gentry were called "knights," another obsolete military term. Knighthood entitled the senior male (as today) of the family to use the title of Sir and his wife to be given the honorific appellation of Lady. But a significant portion of wealthy gentry families resisted the official awarding of knighthood from the king because to be a "belted knight" could increase military and tax liabilities and put a heavier strain on the hospitality and entertainment budget of the family.

Marriage, the production of progeny, and inheritance were the core of gentry life. A gentry family in the fourteenth century could rise from relative mediocrity by favor of the king, by collecting booty in the French wars, or - less commonly - by careful "husbandry" or estate management.

But another and common route up the social and economic ladder was a series of good marriages - that is, those that brought in heavy dowries - plus the availability of male heirs steadily over several generations to keep the estate perpetually intact.

On the other hand, marrying a woman of modest means and thin dowry, or losing her rich dowry after her death because of complicated legal maneuvers by which most of the landed dowry was returned to her family, and absence of male heirs, or even widows who lived too long and sat on a big share of family income, could damage or ruin a great family. This relationship between generations and property was the central and certainly most interesting theme in the life of fourteenth-century gentry families.

Over this process of marriage, birth, death, and inheritance, the Black Death fell like a tornado sweeping across the countryside. It generated a much higher level of mortality than usual among the gentry - especially among male gentry - and many great families were suddenly shaken and their security threatened, their wealth and social status undermined. Coveted estates that had taken generations to build were suddenly swallowed by another family, distantly related, and the losing family's honorable name was expunged from society and history.

There were two kinds of people who especially benefited from the squabbles brought about by the Black Death and the endless litigation that was the result. The first were the "common lawyers" (so-called to distinguish them from civil - Roman - lawyers who practiced in ecclesiastical courts).

The common lawyers were graduates of the Inns of Court, the four residential law schools cum bar associations located in Westminster in London (they are still there today). They made their money protecting, expanding, and defending the gentry estates. There was actually a shortage of them, and their fees were high, but no gentry family could endure long without their services. Since medieval English procedure did not allow a defendant to be represented by an attorney in a criminal trial, the criminal justice bar was almost nonexistent.

Many of these barristers specializing in property and inheritance cases were on permanent retainer to leading families. It was not enough to know the law - not an easy thing to do because property law was frequently changed by judicial decisions as well as by occasional legislation (as in the United States today). They also had to be expert at drawing complicated documents in a highly specialized language, law French, and it also helped to know Latin and English, which were also used in the law courts. Above all they had to be expert "pleaders" (later called barristers), attorneys who were licensed to appear in court, stand on their feet, and with little or no aide-memoir argue immensely complicated cases before judges and juries for hours or days on end.

They perforce got so expert in doing these things that they created a body of real estate law that is largely still in effect today. A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law today. In every U.S. law school, a required course in the first semester for entering students is entitled "property." Its principles and procedures were worked out empirically by the English bar in the fourteenth century, given a big boost by the carnage and confusion visited upon gentry families by the Black Death.

The other beneficiaries of the plague, besides the lawyers, were women of the gentry class. The common law had a procedure for protecting widows, partly because the gentry landlords engaged in serial marriages with wives who died like flies in childbirth and were often gone by age thirty.

The heir to the family estate was usually a product of the first marriage and the widow, wife number two or three, was his stepmother, sometimes younger than the heir. Oedipal tensions ("that sexy young wench, my father's third wife and now his widow, is eating up the old man's estate," a great plot line that Shakespeare and Hollywood missed) could inflame an heir's greedy disdain for taking care of his stepmother or even his actual birth-mother, in this cruel, selfish society.

Therefore, the law stepped in and decreed that every widow had a right to "dower," one-third of the income (not the capital) of her husband's estate until she died. Within forty days of her husband's demise she was supposed to vacate the family mansion. But one-third the income from the family lands would allow her to live comfortably elsewhere and play the role of the grand dowager.

Complex legal instruments called jointures, a sort of prenuptial agreement, might allow her to recover part or even all of the landed dowry she had brought to the marriage, a common occurrence when the bride was much wealthier than the upwardly mobile groom. A great deal of late medieval litigation, miles of parchment court rolls, written on sheepskin, was taken up by litigation following the heir's visceral disdain for dower and jointure belonging to his stepmother or even his own birth-mother.

A favorite trick was simply to refuse the widow the entry to the dower, leaving her in anxious frustration and genteel poverty. Then the heir's and widow's attorneys would try to work out a settlement giving the widow comfort but much less than she was strictly entitled to by law. If agreement could not be reached - and especially if the widow had important relatives who stood by her - then it was on to the courts where such cases could drag on not only for years but decades.

The worst thing that could happen to a gentry family was biological nullity - the family became extinct in children of either sex. No legitimate son or daughter survived the father or brother to inherit. Even without the added impact of the plague years, this occurred with remarkable frequency. In any given year before the Black Death, one out of twenty families of the wealthier gentry and also the nobility experienced extinction in direct succession.

If this happened a variety of outcomes could occur. The king might declare the family void and take the estate back into his demesne, his crown property, and then possibly give or sell it to an entirely unrelated family. Often a cousin would be allowed to inherit it from the extinct family, frequently taking their surname if he did not already bear it. This latter transaction required a hefty bribe to the royal government, in addition to the normal onerous inheritance tax, and could burden the estate for a generation or more.

Short of biological nullity, the worst thing that could happen to a gentry family was for two or three heirs in rapid succession, father, son, and even grandson, and all married, to die in a pandemic leaving three hale and hearty widows with dower rights in the family estate.

The fourth male heir (or rather his attorney, since he was likely to be a child) faced the gloomy prospect of two or even three dowagers asserting their dower rights upon the estate at the same time, taking away large parts of the family income and leaving a fraction only for the new heir. As the new heir came of age and found the majority of his ancestral income siphoned off by the two or three dowagers, personal animosity would exacerbate fiscal strain.

Then as now a dysfunctional family would be sucked into a whirlwind of psychological stress, fiscal tightness, and bitter litigation. It could take two decades to straighten out this mess, if it ever was straightened out. The lawyers clucked in pretended sympathy while adding up the steadily mounting legal fees.

No historian has yet come up with a statistical study of whether gentry males were harder hit by the Black Death than women in the same family. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support such a theory. There was a plethora of dowagers in the two or three decades after the Black Death of the late 1340s. It is easy to understand how this difference in the mortality rate of male and female gentry happened.

The Black Death resulted either from bubonic plague or anthrax. The male gentry would commonly be out in the fields inspecting their lands, barns, and cattle and encountering plague-ridden rats or diseased cows daily. While there were some activist female gentry who would do the same thing, the majority of them lived a more confined and sheltered life and were less likely to have close daily physical contact with rodents and cattle.

The resulting difference in mortality from the Black Death was a boon to women of the gentry class. Their superior survival rate brought enhanced wealth, independence, and position in local society. But this sexual disparity could play havoc with the stability and economy of a gentry estate, especially due to the law's generosity to dowagers, and thereby generate decades of bitter family infighting.

* * *

The case of the le Strange family demonstrates well what the Black Death and the courts could do to an unlucky upper-class family. The le Stranges lived in Whitchurch in Shropshire in the black-earth, high-grain-yielding country intensely competed for by gentry families. The rich le Stranges were ambitious and on the rise, and because of their upward mobility were starting to make marriages in some instances with younger daughters of the nobility.

But the le Strange family was exceptionally unlucky in losing male family members during three successive outbreaks of the plague - two in 1349, and one each in 1361 and 1375. By 1375 not even the relative fecundity of the family in producing sons for the next generation could help them escape extinction in the male line. The plague had eliminated sons and left ambitious dowagers.

The le Stranges going back to the 1330s were not originally a great gentry house. They were a family on the make, principally through marriages with rich women, plus good estate management. The enhancement of family fortunes was launched by the marriage of John le Strange the First to a wealthy gentry heiress, Anakretta le Botiler. In the next two generations the le Strange heirs married into the nobility. This raised their social and political profile and with luck would have accrued vast landed wealth to the family.

But the Black Death countered that luck. Fulk le Strange, John I's eldest son, married Elizabeth, the daughter of Earl Ralph of Stafford. Earl Ralph drove a hard marriage bargain. Fulk's father, Ralph Stafford insisted, had to settle land worth two hundred marks a year (about a half-million dollars) jointly on the couple. This meant that if both John I and Fulk died close in time to each other and Fulk's marriage to the heiress Elizabeth Stafford was short, the le Strange estate would be affected severely by loss of income from land held as dower for the widow.

Fulk le Strange died in the Black Death on August 30, 1349. But Elizabeth Stafford lived to a ripe old age by medieval standards, not dying until 1376. During those three decades Elizabeth not only collected dower from her deceased husband's estate but remarried twice, taking with her the succulent property that John I le Strange had to settle jointly on his son Fulk and Elizabeth Stafford to get Earl Ralph's permission for the marriage. The land thus eventually passed to the family of Reginald, Lord Cobham, Elizabeth Stafford's third husband.

The story gets worse and more complicated for the pathetic le Stranges. Not only did Fulk le Strange, the elder son and prime heir of John I, die in the Black Death in August 1349, but the old man himself, John I le Strange of Whitchurch, had died of the plague only five weeks earlier. For a rich gentry family this blow was equivalent to a 60 percent crash in the stock market today - if every single asset was held in stock.

Anakretta le Botiler survived her husband, John I le Strange, until the next visitation of the plague in 1361. This meant that there were now two living dowagers, Anakretta le Botiler le Strange and Elizabeth Stafford le Strange, both women from families powerful enough to get their full dower rights and then some. For the twelve years of her widowhood Anakretta held the family house at Whitchurch in Shropshire (contrary to custom, by which she should have vacated it within forty days of her husband's death). She held on to one estate that came with her dowry, since it was jointly visited upon her and John I. For another piece of land she paid her son John II le Strange and his estate the modest sum of twenty marks (thirty thousand dollars) a year.

This medieval soap opera in the age of the Black Death gets worse still for the le Strange gentry. John II le Strange got back some of his father's lands when his mother, Anakretta, died in 1361, but he himself died of the plague in the same year. This left a third dowager to be taken care of from the le Strange lands, a great lady indeed, Mary, daughter of the earl - later duke - of Arundel.


Excerpted from In The Wake Of The Plague by Norman F. Cantor Copyright 2001 by Norman Cantor
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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