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Medieval Pandemics and Watford, Northamptonshire

Burying Victims of the Plague, 14th Century

What we see today is not as unique as we may think. Between 1000 and 500 years before now, epidemics were vastly more dangerous than they are today. Now, we benefit from the evolution of health standards and medicine. Some of this began after medieval epidemics.

Common scourges back then included leprosy, smallpox, tuberculosis (or “consumption”), and of course, the plague, famously aka the Black Death, which in one of its three different forms presented symptoms similar to Covid-19. Many of these diseases were contagious, none respected borders, and all ignored class, race, creed, and colour.

After a long period of prosperity in Europe, the 14th century didn’t begin well. Believe it or not, major changes in climate caused the Great Famine, with the associated food shortages resulting in many millions of deaths during 1315-1317. The vill of Watford was no exception. Two landlords were victims – Edmund de Watford III and Robert de Watford.

One generation after the Famine, the first pandemic of the Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351. This pandemic caused the deaths of as much as a third of the entire population.

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us: The chief method of combating plague was to isolate known or suspected cases as well as persons who had been in contact with them. The period of isolation at first was about 14 days and gradually was increased to 40 days. Stirred by the Black Death, public officials created a system of sanitary control to combat contagious diseases, using observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures.

Sound familiar? … Public Authorities today speak of: … physical distancing … contact tracing … wash your hands … isolation wards …

What they did way back then for better health pays so many dividends today.

Britannica describes what they did: Efforts to improve sanitation included the development of pure water supplies, garbage and sewage disposal, and food inspection. These efforts were especially important in the cities, where people lived in crowded conditions in a rural manner with many animals around their homes.

The Black Death killed so much of the country’s population. Whether manor lords or farmers or peasants, the disease took its toll. As farmers disappeared, landlords were left with fewer people able to pay rent. For the farmers who survived, so many of their labourers vanished that often they were unable to work the land and sell its produce, and therefore had little or no income. As well, due to the scarcity of farm labourers, their wages

were forced upwards, increasing the economic problems of farmers, resulting in increased wastelands. And inevitably, shortages of food and other products.

The second pandemic of the plague in this era, not so long after the first, hit in 1360-63. This time, all three of the Watford manor lords perished, all in the summer of 1361. One after another they succumbed in quick succession: Walter de Parles on the July 24, Nicholas de Burneby on August 10, both aged about 55, closely followed by Edmund de Watford V, on September 4, aged about 35-40.

The tragedy in Watford did not end there. The eldest son and heir of Walter and Nicholas had already died of the plague before 1361. Edmund’s heir was his brother, a cleric in the king’s service, who himself died of the plague only seven years later. Not to mention many of the farmers and labourers and their families living on manor lands – perhaps in all, about 60 people died of a parish population amounting to around 200 people.

Even if worldwide fatalities from Covid-19 increases by ten times the awful number we see early May 2020, 700 years ago they were more than 1,000 times worse off. With the benefit of medicine and healthcare developed since that time, we have so much reason for optimism.

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