It is difficult for anyone living today to even try to understand the fear and despair which was experienced by the population of medieval Europe during an outbreak of the plague. Equally, not many people realise just how destructive such epidemics were, and a major outbreak such as the one which occurred in 1348–50, and killed off one quarter of the population of Europe, could be compared to either of the two recent world wars in terms of human misery and suffering.
The doctors of the time were powerless to help in any way, and in fact at the first signs of an approaching epidemic were only too ready to leave the crowded towns and cities and head for the comparative safety of the countryside, thereby leaving the panic stricken townspeople to the mercy of the quack doctors who did a roaring trade, selling their most objectionable and useless medicines to a gullible public.
We know now that plague is caused by the organism Bacillus pestis and can occur in three forms – all highly fatal:- pneumonic, mainly affecting the lungs, bubonic, producing buboes or swellings of the lymph glands, and septicemic, poisoning of the blood. It is transmitted to man by fleas – mainly from black rats and other rodents, producing high fever, agonising pain and prostration, and is usual fatal within five or six days. Because its victims became covered with dark blotches caused by haemorrhages in the skin, it came to be known as the Black Death. The last such epidemic in England occurred in 1665 when one tenth of the population of London died as a result of it.
There was a major outbreak of the plague in Dalton in 1631 which killed over half of the inhabitants, and in all probability the town had experienced similar, but less severe, epidemics in the preceding years.
The following eye-witness account of the effects of the plague in Dalton is taken from an old document preserved in the parish church, and is a translation of an original manuscript in Latin by George Postlethwaite, the parish clerk at the time, who died in 1680. It is here reproduced almost in full, although some parts, irrelevant to the story, have been omitted:-
“Lugubrious Lines on the destructive and violent Plague which raged in Dalton, and spread with rapid fury in the seventh year of the reign of King Charles the First and the year of our Lord 1631.
By George Postlethwaite, Parish Clerk and Master of the Free School.
Immersed in lamentations, in deep groans and severe grief, I ardently wish to compose a few lines but the sorrow of my breast impedes the undertaking, tears to me are torments which impair the energy of the mind; yet while a heavy torphor possesses my limbs abundant streams flow from my tearful eyes. I stand as if affrighted by demons or monsters in the night When I attempt to speak my voice is suddenly obstructed; when I attempt to write, a paralysis restrains all the powers of my hand. Though my whole body is enfeebled with grief, yet will I write a few lines suggested by my sorrowful brain. Ye cheering train of Muses inspire these my undertakings; mingle my thoughts with the cultivated measures of
poetry in my mind; sprinkle my uninstructed forehead with the sacred waters of Helicon and shine upon me with a benign aspect And you, Melpomene who delights in tragic strains now hasten unto me for not only will you be an acceptable companion in my affliction but your assistance 0 hallowed muse I crave, to sing the sudden ruin of a small ancient town. Meanwhile you may repose with me in the cool shade of an expanded bower and place your snow-white feet upon the tender grass; for now Phoebus has ascended above the tops of the mountains and heat glows in his piercing rays.
Virgil sung the untimely funerals of miserable Troy in the death of potent Priam and the overthrow of his Kingdom and Ovid, the adept of love described the depravity of the human race while yet the world was new. But I intend to recite the death of many men who fell not by the bloody arms of thundering Mars I propose to relate the ruin of a small town, the houses of which, devouring fire did not consume, nor the waters of the expanded ocean overwhelm its walls, but which alas, a severe Plague destroyed.
Six hundred and twelve inhabitants of different ages attended the church where the divine pastor who was the guardian of his Christian people diligently taught the word of God.
But now confide in what I say; the subject is not of small importance; therefore listen attentively to my artless strains. Although I, unhappy person could not describe the sorrowful events of the time which previously afflict my heart, were my powers of speech increased two hundred fold; yet, nevertheless I will begin; I do not intend to desist from my proposal.
In this town, sorrow with tears, lamentations and deep sighs began to prevail with the dire funerals of many inhabitants A miserable, accursed, abandoned, vile fugitive named Lancaster with his wife came down from the superb city of London, bearing his own shafts of death enclosed amongst garments and precious jewels which were laid up as common report said, and the event verified in the death of the people, to destroy many of the living. These two persons brought in their baggage deadly poisons – a tartarean plague – the sharp darts of a cruel death.
Arthur Richardson said to many people, being impressed with trembling fear, “we shall be infected immediately with a violent plague, and I will forfeit my life upon the cross if this fiery pestilence rage not many months amongst us as we have seen before’ But yet notwithstanding this precaution we miserable people gave a kind reception to those cruel enemies who were placed in the principal part of the town.
Presently the great power of the secret infection included in the garments burst out in a furious plague, the contagious fire of which blazed through the whole town and consumed the mortal curbs. And as the lopper of trees gives many wounds to the boughs with his hard axe and leaves the naked trunk so, alas,
did the stranger Lancaster give severe wounds to us, then commenced physician, and administered poison.
Thus was the once cheerful town of Dalton oppressed with a grievous pestilence, and many inhabitants were its victims. Many with their families and household stock of pro visions forsook their homes. The Rev. S. Tomlinson the minister also fled in fear, and left the holy threshholds of the church: and afterwards George Postlethwaite, the parish clerk, departed with hasty steps in the calm night. Every one hastened away protected by his faithful friend (the minister) and turned his back on the infected town. Many with straw and small leafy branches of trees constructed humble cabins in which were placed several infected persons, who might return to their own homes. Suddenly the plague raged with flaming fury and ultimate darkness closed many eyes. Then all the inhabitants began to quake with cold fear. They were astonished and, chilling horror raised their pendant hair, for the plague raged everywhere in the town and thence it was unlawful, nay even impracticable to depart because the bridges and roads were attended by sentinels armed with clubs both day and night
The pestilent Lancaster and his associate Noble, two wicked homicides who feared not death, nor regarded the Deity, committed the dead bodies to the grave with the falling of the dew.
In performing this office they placed the corpse upon a ladder, then proceeded hastily to the sepulchre, and there presumed to throw the body of a dear friend into the grave, as the lifeless trunk of a mariner is often cast into the sea; for the doors of the church were closed and the funeral bells were silent. Many people closed their own doors and sorrowfully wandered alone through the country over the fruitful plains. Boys durst not go with their mothers and fathers refused to associate with their children. Here the master was odious to the men-servants and the mistress to the maid servants. Pale death gnawing their breasts, they drooped their heads and wandered in solitary places: odious and dangerous to all, their companions and friends avoided these miserable people like bloody monsters.
Sixty persons were sent to the sepulchre in eight days, nine of whom died in one night.
To many, the pestiferous Lancaster gave a kind of black medicine, the efficacy of which suddenly destroyed the memory and understanding of the sick person for the bloody plasma infuriates, thus the sick being delirious, beat out their brains against door posts and walls and perished ignominiously. Others he ordered to drink out of bloody cups, by which means they lost their senses and the whole use of reason. What demon could have invented anything more cruel than this?
At length the bells of the church began to sound, and the people performed the funeral rites with pious hymns and crowded together to place the body of a dear friend in the tomb, and as the furious whirl-winds in Autumn disturb the boughs of trees, and disperse the leaves upon the grass, so men fell by disease and filled the church-yard.
The neighbouring people gave many necessaries of life to the sorrowful townsmen and to those miserable persons enclosed in the gulf of death. The renowned John Preston Esq., worthy of eternal honour (whom may the celestial powers always preserve) took care to distribute milk, bread and money to the needy. This pious gentleman gave many presents to the little ones, and took care that the rapid infection of the plague should not advance, and spread abroad in other small towns.
After the violence of the plague had increased more grievously, it blazed with terrible fury in respectable houses Then the prudent Justice of the Peace cast the pestiferous Lancaster and Noble his associate in the evil, into dark prison, where the depopulators of our country lived, as it were, in the gulf of death and received al/the light they enjoyed through the chinks in the door. But they deserved punishment more grievous than this; they ought to have been cast into the rapid streams of the vast Phlegethon…
But this pestiferous, this false, this execrable barbarian, this abandoned, cruel outlaw Lancaster, presumed to administer dire infection to many, and his vile hands compounded poisons which suddenly penetrated the systems and broke the hearts of men. This craver of plunder and spoil for a long time drew the fickle vulgar into his false opinion by saying with open mouth (believe me) “the disease is not to be feared’ Thus the people, blinded by false assurances, increased the plague by visiting their companions.
The consuming plague raged seven months in this town, with acute flames more fervent than the Sicilian Etna, and in this space of time, did cruel death devour three hundred and sixty inhabitants. I am witness to a great many burials.
After many sorrowful funerals and the destruction of the town, the people purified their houses with frankinsense, bitumen, myrrh, fictitious powder and sulphur, and, at the same time burnt their garments and infected bedding. All the inhabitants gave solemn assurance upon receiving the anniversary sacrament to surrender to the purifiers all goods retained in their houses without fraud or deceit, not to preserve anything stored in secrecy; because by clandestinely keeping infected garments, they might afterwards endanger the town. But yet, the wretched perjuror, Noble (a person false and belying the name) and his wife have privately concealed in a granary amongst heaps of corn, in beds, and other places which were opened in their apartments, rugs and many sheets, garments, gowns, shirts, webbs and several other articles privately collected in the time of the plague.
Lancaster and his wife do not now molest our walls, they lately departed (all glory be to God). But the pest bearer did not go off unrevenged by the hands of the women, who having vigilantly watched the gates and roads, assaulted him with stones which severely wounded his head, and then contended with crooked staffs. To those by whom the wounds were inflicted (but not without cause), the false,
abandoned Lancaster pretended he was killed, and feigned not to inspire the air, for the cunning rascal laid upon the ground as if he were dead, and thus the villain finally evaded the vengeance of the women and fled, which was pleasant and gave great joy to all”