Mortality, gender, and the plague of 1361–2 on the estate of the bishop of Winchester
By John Mullan
Cardiff Historical Papers: Cardiff School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University (2007)
Abstract: By any estimate the great pestilence of the late 1340s – the Black Death – was the most catastrophic of epidemics to strike Western Europe in the Middle Ages, apparently indiscriminate of age or sex. A mortality rate of somewhere between a third and half of the population is generally agreed. The consequences of this horrifying disaster were to lead to profound long-term changes in the economic and societal order of the medieval West. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this 1348–9 epidemic has dominated discussion of the later medieval plague pandemic. Whilst the broad outlines and much local detail are firmly in place, the nature and effect of the Black Death remain the focus of lively debate. The specific epidemiological nature of the contamination, for example, is not even settled. As old assumptions are challenged and new interpretations offered, the historiography of the Black Death continues to grow.
Considerably less attention to date has been devoted to the recurrent pestilences of the later Middle Ages, both national and regional. In England such epidemics occurred with greatest vigour in 1361–2, but also in 1369, 1379–83, 1389– 93, and on at least 13 further occasions in the following century. These later outbreaks occasioned lower rates of mortality. Historians’ chief interest has been in their cumulative effect on a persistently low level of population and fertility, rather than on individual epidemics.
Yet there are features of the recurrent outbreaks which distinguish them from the pandemic’s first visitation. In particular, some of them appear to have had the capricious and intriguing tendency to single out the wealthy and the young, especially young men. Although the sex-selective nature of the great second epidemic of 1361–2 was mentioned by chroniclers, such claims have been subject to little empirical analysis by historians. The aim of this paper is to address this deficiency by examining the entry fines from the estate of the bishop of Winchester.