The Black Death is synonymous with destruction, death and massive change. When I planned my upcoming book on what was known as the Great Mortality, I settled on ‘1348, A Medieval Apocalypse – The Black Death in Ireland’. Even if somewhat sensationalist it worked. It’s accessible, non-academic and most importantly explained what I thought the thrust of the book would be.
However now I am no longer sure the title fits my research as the book takes shape. After a few weeks of struggling with ideas I had a eureka moment last Thursday. This was the realisation that maybe the Black Death in Ireland was not as bad as often portrayed, at least not for people of the mid 14th century.
I don’t have a revelation that lots of people didn’t die. That somewhere between 30% and 50% of the population succumbed to plague is beyond question. Contemporary chroniclers accounts, anecdotal evidence and comparative studies of better-documented medieval societies all illustrate the severity of plague in Ireland.
How was this ‘not that bad’?
Ok so 50% of the population dying in less than a year is obviously unique and apocalyptic to us. It would have profound changes on our society. However I am increasingly convinced that it was not as devastating as we might imagine in 1348. The generation who endured the plague already experienced similar carnage and survived.
They were after all lived the survivors of the worst famine in recorded history between 1315-18. This was accompanied by the three-year long invasion from Scotland, which saw the most fertile lands on the island burned and harried. Towns, castles and villages were attacked and their populations put to the sword. Amid the mayhem the many reports of cannibalism are unlikely to have been apocryphal.
Historians estimate the famine caused a 10-15% population decline in England. In Ireland the accompanying war and destruction could easily have doubled this figure. This was a horrific time to be alive.
The following years weren’t exactly utopian. Economic Depression followed in the 1320s as rinderpest devastated cattle stocks between 1321 & 24. Civil War broke out in 1327-8 and famine returned in 1329-31.
However I have uncovered evidence of people adapting and surviving indeed some were even able to profit amid the chaos.
This trying time did leave a population malnourished and susceptible to disease.
Studies have revealed how these hardships left the poor in particular vulnerable to plague. However such experiences also armed people with tools for survival when faced with the next great challenge – plague.
This is not to say there wasn’t a fall out from plague; there clearly was, however this is only one part of the story. I think much of the chaos attributed to the plague may well have been already have been a feature of Irish society since the 1320s. If anything by the 1350s people may have adapted to face these challenges.
Therefore the story of plague is one of survival and continuity in the face adversity as much as it is one of collapse. There is evidence life continued in many respects. Business transactions picked up remarkably quickly. In a study I carried out of parts of the southeast it would appear land was not abandoned as previously thought (many have argued that land was abandoned as the population dropped).
I think there is a strong case it is the entire first half of the 14th century that is apocalyptic rather than the plague itself. While this century has been long been recognized as tumultuous, the Black Death was traditionally given pride of place in this carnival of death. This may be incorrect in Ireland at least.
In short society in Ireland was already teetering on the brink of an apocalypse prior to the outbreak of plague in 1348. Its impact may have been limited for this reason.
The research continues… but my title may change…
(Perhaps a question mark might be needed – 1348, A Medieval Apocalypse? – The Black Death in Ireland”)
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