Historian uncovers ‘eye watering’ scope of Black Death devastation

A new analysis of broken pottery fragments collected from various rural locations throughout east England has shed new light on the devastating impact of the Black Death, the fearsome pandemic that ravaged much of Europe between the years of 1346 and 1351.

University of Lincoln Professor Carenza Lewis and her colleagues collected pieces of pottery from nearly 2,000 standard-sized test pits in more than 55 locations in six counties which were also settlements during the 14th century. These artifacts, the Guardian reported, were excellent indicators of the human population because they were commonly-used everyday items.

By counting and comparing the number and weight of broken pottery pieces from different date levels, the researchers were able to determine how many people were living at a specific location at any given time. What they found was the “eye-watering” discovery that the population fell by as much as 70 percent in some areas, such as Binham in Norfolk; Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Shillington in Bedfordshire, and Great Amwell in Hertfordshire.

Lewis and her fellow archaeologists collected the pottery fragments from more than 2,000 one-square meter test pits excavated between 2005 and 2014, and found that nine-tenths of all of the 55 locations recorded a decline in the number of test pits yielding at least two shards. Their work also reveals which parts of the country were most severely affected by the plague.

These terrifying masks were thought to be able to stop the spread of the plague

These terrifying masks were worn by physicians and thought to be able to stop the spread of the plague.

Population levels 35 to 55 percent below normal through 16th century

“The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” Lewis said in a statement. “Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data.”

“This new research offers a novel solution to that evidential challenge, using finds of pottery – a highly durable indicator of human presence – as a proxy for population change in a manner that is both scalable and replicable,” the professor added. “It shows that pottery use fell by almost a half in eastern England in the centuries immediately after the Black Death.”

There was an overall decline of 45 percent in pottery finds between the high medieval period (early 12th to early 14th centuries) and the late medieval period (late 14th to late 16th centuries). The findings, reported in the journal Antiquity, supported the growing belief that the post-Black Death population of England remained 35 and 55 percent below the pre-disease levels well into the 16th century.

“Just as significantly, this new research suggests there is an almost unlimited reservoir of new evidence capable of revealing change in settlement and demography still surviving beneath today’s rural parishes, towns and villages – anyone could excavate, anywhere in the UK, Europe or even beyond, and discover how their community fared in the aftermath of the Black Death,” said Lewis.


Image credit: Thinkstock