The Temporal Dynamics of the Fourteenth-Century Black Death: New Evidence from English Ecclesiastical Records
Wood, James W.; Ferrell, Rebecca J.; and Dewitte-Aviña, Sharon N.
Human Biology, Vol. 75: Iss. 4 (2003)
Abstract: Recent research has questioned whether the European Black Death of 1347–1351 could possibly have been caused by the bubonic plague bacillus Yersinia pestis, as has been assumed for over a century. Central to the arguments both for and against involvement of Y. pestis has been a comparison of the temporal dynamics observed in confirmed outbreaks of bubonic plague in early-20th-century India, versus those reconstructed for the Black Death from English church records—specifically, from lists of institutions (appointments) to vacated benefices contained in surviving bishops’ registers. This comparison is, however, based on a statistical error arising from the fact that most of the bishops’ registers give only the dates of institution and not the dates of death. Failure to correct for a distributed (as opposed to constant) lag time from death to institution has made it look as if the Black Death passed slowly through specific localities. This error is compounded by a failure to disaggregate the information from the bishops’ registers to a geographical level that is genuinely comparable to the modern data. A sample of 235 deaths from the bishop’s register of Coventry and Lichfield, the only English register to list both date of death and date of institution, shows that the Black Death swept through local areas much more rapidly than has previously been thought. This finding is consistent with those of earlier studies showing that the Black Death spread too rapidly between locales to have been a zoonosis such as bubonic plague. A further analysis of the determinants of the lag between death and institution, designed to provide a basis for reexamining other bishops’ registers that do not provide information on date of death, shows that the distribution of lags could vary significantly by time and space even during a single epidemic outbreak.