History Group Talk September 2014


Speaker Jill Drysdale gave the meeting a new perspective on an old problem relating to our history - Plague and Pestilence in Devon 1338 - 1647.
That period could be described as The Dark Days of Devon.
The plague hit the country in 1348, sometimes referred to as the Black Death but many terrible diseases were rampant at that time.
It has to be remembered that there was nothing like penicillin available in those days and people were rightly scared stiff when communities were hit resulting in large numbers of their town or village dying within a few days of the arrival of this scourge.
Jill has been able to research a great deal of Devon and Totnes in particular and the figures she has come up with are frightening.
In 1348 as many as two thirds of the population died.
Many of the ‘landed gentry’ tended to lock themselves away in their large houses and not mix with their servants who in their turn were left to their own devises. After the plague had diminished they found themselves short of staff and the workers took the opportunity to demand higher wages (Supply & Demand began to feature).
In 1381 there was the peasants revolt - workers realised that their expertise was in great demand and ‘cashed in’ on the situation.
Black rats were considered as being the main source of contamination and even when they were dead the rat’s fleas would leave the carcass due to it cooling down and they would seek another warm blooded animal to feed off. The human body is about the same temperature as a rat so they found an ideal ‘second home’.
As they fed off the people they mixed the rat’s blood already within their stomachs with the human’s blood and so passed on the contamination.
Jill’s research seems to point at the coastal regions being the hardest hit, and the market towns where people met and did most of the business also at that time.
Weymouth appears to be the first town contaminated and it spread on to Somerset, Gloucester, the rest of Dorset and eventually Devon.
She showed slides depicting the terrible effects of the Black Death, ulcers and large calluses, black wounds and terrible sores.
Another period in 1665 brought another plague.
The effect smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, dysentery and typhoid also complicated the problems.
During the period 1540 - 1650 there appears to have been a mortality crisis every
10 years. This she demonstrated with graphs that she has spent years ratifying.
It appears to begin most years in early summer (June), peeking in August and tailing away towards October.
Due to the density of people in their homes fleas and lice readily played their part in spreading the plague. Villages around Totnes gradually felt the effect of the plague and by looking at the burial records of neighbouring parishes, and studying the numbers involved in these records one can calculate the effect the plague had in any one area.
One other pointer is how in many situations the deaths of husbands or wives in families resulted in them remarrying within a few months as a case of necessity increasing the size of families as two were drawn together needing breadwinners and housekeepers.
Modern science has helped us so much, it is curable today, aren’t we lucky?

 

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