Portrait of Britain: AD 1400

Nigel Saul tells how, in spite of famines and visitations of the plague, conditions were better than ever before for those living in 1400.

At the end of the fourteenth century the British Isles were a land transformed. At the beginning of the century the population everywhere had been high and rising. Towns and villages had been crowded. The countryside had been akin to Langland’s ‘plain full of people’. A hundred years later the position was very different. Population had fallen and continued to fall. Whole villages had vanished from the map. In the towns, rows of tenements stood empty.

The turning point had come in 1348 when the Black Death struck Britain. No plague epidemic had hit the country for some 700 years; the last known outbreak had been back in the 660s. In the 1340s, however, a plague-carrying bacillus was brought to western Europe from Russia. The dreaded infection spread quickly. According to the chronicler of Lynn, it was introduced to England through Weymouth in June. By August it had reached the south-east, and by spring the following year it had spread to the far north. The symptoms of the disease were terrible. Large swellings or buboes grew in the groin, neck or armpit, giving off a foul smell, and within two or three days the victim was dead. In the absence of reliable statistics it is hard to say how many people died, but a figure of between 30 and 40 per cent of the population is probably about right. At the beginning of the century, England’s population had been some 6-7 million. Eighty years later it had fallen to 3-4 million. Scotland’s population is believed to have fallen by the same proportion.

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