History and Heritage

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History: Part 1

Introduction and the Black Death with Particular Reference to S.W. England

By: Dr John Sell

The first living things on earth were single celled organisms from which all other life forms developed. What many people have still to realise is that we are still totally dependent on them to produce an environment in which the higher forms of plants and animals can flourish. Single celled organisms can be divided into different categories and those which are relevant to disease in humans and animals are certain viruses, bacteria and fungi which have developed lifestyles which can cause harm when they grow in animal and plant bodies. Of the many potentially disease causing organisms it is certain bacteria and viruses which have caused greatest havoc among humans, but most of these have been transferred to mankind from animals, when habitats and lifestyles have overlapped. 

Infectious disease has been a hazard of life for millions of years and would have affected all hominids as soon as they came into existence. Because the human population was so small and people lived in quite isolated social groups it wasn’t until relatively late in the history of humanity, when larger tightly packed centres of population appeared and facilitated spread, that large epidemics and pandemics appeared. One of the earliest recorded pandemics was the so-called Antonine Plague which broke out in A.D. 165 and lasted until A.D. 180. It was widely believed to have been Smallpox but more recently Measles has been suggested. It appeared in the Roman Army which was besieging Seleucia in Mesopotamia and quickly spread to Gaul and the legions stationed along the Rhine. The death count has been estimated at 5 – 10 million or approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. The first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the so-called Justinian Plague of 541 – 549 A.D. which continued sporadically until c. 750 A.D. It afflicted the Mediterranean, Near East and Europe wreaking havoc throughout Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Recent discoveries from Edix Hill in Cambridgeshire indicate that it reached Britain, possibly earlier than it affected the Byzantine Empire. It has recently been suggested that it reduced the population of Britain from 4-5 million down to around 2 million.


The Justinian Plague is the first known pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was to cause the Black Death six hundred years later and the Hong Kong plague of the late nineteenth century and which still occasionally causes death today. Y. pestis is capable of causing three types of plague, the best known being Bubonic plague, spread by the bite of carrier rats, of which there were many in ancient times, living in close proximity with humans. The bacteria infected the body and became localized in lymph nodes causing painful swelling, putrefaction and gangrene, called buboes, hence the name Bubonic plague. The other two types of plague are Pneumonic plague where the bacteria enter via the lungs. This type causes an even quicker death than the other two and is now thought to have been the main method of spread from person to person. The third type is Septicaemic plague where the infection enters more directly into the blood stream. In the Black Death most cases were at one time thought to be of Bubonic plague but more recent experiments based on droplet spread, as in the studies of Covid, have led to the conclusion that the Pneumonic plague probably accounted for at least as many deaths as the Bubonic plague.

Yersinia pestis was first identified by Dr Yersin at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1894 and was originally called Pasteurella pestis or Bacille de la peste, but its name was changed in 1944 to honour its discoverer. Paleogenetics, a branch of science which enables the genetic analysis of molecular material, was used in 2011 to produce a complete sequence of Yersinia pestis from a Black Death cemetery in central London, used exclusively to bury victims of the 1340s plague and then closed when the plague had passed. In 2015 this technique was used to identify Y. pestis in Bronze Age samples. The oldest known sample found from a human body is 5,000 years old.

These Neolithic and Bronze Age samples are from N. Eurasia, modern China and Russia. The strains alive today most closely related to the Justinianic plague and Black Death are from the Tian Shan mountains and the Junggar Basin between China and Kyrgyzstan. Marmots there have strains of Y. pestis closely related to strains from historical plague victims.

How the Black Death travelled from central Asia to north west Europe is a question that has exercised historians and epidemiologists for a long time, but we do seem to be closer to answering it and it is linked to large population movements particularly those related to the spread of the Mongol Empire and the provisioning of its armies in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

In 1345 plague appeared and quickly spread in the Mongol army while it was besieging the city of Kaffa, (modern day Feodosiya, on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea) In desperation they catapulted plague infected corpses into the city so infecting the population. There had been a flourishing trade link in grain between Kaffa and Europe, particularly with Genoa in Italy, which was embargoed during the siege and the plague, but the embargo was lifted in 1347 so allowing infected rodents, attracted to the rich pickings of sacks of grain, to hitch lifts in grain shipments destined for much of Europe. So the seed of the Black Death was literally sown and carried by rats, spreading rapidly among the tightly packed populations of N. Europe, killing victims in hundreds of thousands.

The English Channel has often been a line of defence between Britain and the continent in matters of war and disease, but in 1348, just one year after plague hit the rest of Europe, it made its unwelcome presence felt in southern England. In August 1348 plague appeared in Weymouth, Dorset, clearly brought from Normandy, either on a merchant ship, or possibly with a returning military expedition to Calais. Summer and autumn that year were very wet, possibly causing people’s resistance to infection to be lowered and motivating them to shelter together more than usual to avoid the incessant rain.

The Black Death spread rapidly, and killed quickly, many dying in days or even hours of infection. In the west country in October 1348, ecclesiastical processions to entreat the Almighty were ordered in the diocese of Exeter. In 1349 it was so widespread that the law courts were suspended from Hilary until Michaelmas, January to September. Even parliament was suspended for a time. All classes of society were affected from royalty to serf. The clergy, who tried to minister to the sick, paid a particularly heavy toll, some establishments losing all their personnel and hence their support of the parishes disappeared when most needed. Even ships at sea did not escape, with reports of whole crews succumbing and unmanned vessels drifting. Town populations suffered most, but the countryside did not escape and animals died in great numbers when there was no one left to look after them.

Although maps of the spread of plague would suggest otherwise, the population of Cornwall was as severely affected by the Black Death as the rest of England. It had peaked in the late 13th century at around 107,000 but following the Black death was reduced to around 65,000. More than half the clergy had died from their close contact with their dying parishioners. In the Deanery of Penwith 12 of 14 priests died. By 1378 Truro was reported to be entirely desolate and waste. Half the farms and smallholdings had no tenants and between 1349 and 1352 harvests were disastrously poor and little had improved by the 1370s.

Bodmin was also particularly badly hit. Between 1348 – 50 1,500 persons are said to have died, approximately half the estimated population. The county’s economy suffered. Between the 12th and 14th centuries there had been growth in population and the economy, with settlement of upland areas. Many of these moorland hamlets were abandoned. Tin production, important since pre-Roman times, was reduced by 80% by 1351, but had recovered by the 1380s, as shown by examination of the Stannary records. Moresk Manor, at modern day St Clements near Truro, had half its farms with no tenants, and Wendron near Helston, had only a third of its former population. The relative variety of the Cornish economy did however cushion the county from the extreme losses experienced elsewhere.

This drastic loss of life radically changed the economic and social structure of the country and county. The old feudal and manorial system ended and the survivors were in such demand for their labour that they could almost name their price and object to working conditions previously accepted as normal. With the breakdown of feudalism, labourers, even serfs,  were more able to move away from their old masters, and new masters, in need of labour, were less inclined to ask searching questions about their previous work records. The landholding class was reduced in size and holdings increased in size as ownerless holdings were taken over. The balance of livestock changed, sheep farming increasing because it required less labour than cattle farming.

Although the Black Death had mostly abated by the 1350s smaller outbreaks of plague continued, starting in 1360 – 62 and continuing into the 17th century, particularly in cities and urban areas. In Tudor England plague made its presence felt most summers in cities and large towns necessitating the closure of gathering places like theatres and pleasure gardens.

There is little information about the Black Death in the St Ives locality in the 14th century, but it is unlikely that the region escaped unscathed. Certainly St Ives had several visits by the plague during the 17th century. John Hobson Matthews, in his History of St Ives, records episodes in 1603, 1629, 1646, and 1710 – 11.

In September 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth I’s death, herself scarred by smallpox earlier in her life, but who avoided the plague: Regulations for prevention of the plague which was raging throughout the country. No inhabitant may receive a stranger coming by land or sea from an infected district. Persons arriving by sea at St Ives from an infected district are to remain in their ships.

Matthews 170

In 1629 the borough accounts record: deliued the constables to make puision for the companie of an Irishe barke that came from ffraunce havinge the sicknes abord her 3s 4d.

For bread and drinke to the ffishermen  that went abord her being shutt upp 8d.

Matthews 189

In 1646 – 7 i.e. during the Civil War, plague followed by famine returned. 535 people, about a third of the population of St Ives fell victim. (? died) Food brought from neighbouring parishes had to be laid beside the streams that bounded the infected district and townspeople placed their money in the streams at Polmanter and Carbis Valley. Each parcel was ticketed with the price to be paid and purchasers were not to approach the place where the money was laid for several hours. The market was closed for a considerable time. The Stephens shut themselves up in their country house at Ayr and escaped infection. Hicks, the historian, said that more would have died from famine than plague if a ship belonging to Mr Opye of Plymouth, had not come to harbour laden with wheat and some butts of sack (a fortified white wine imported from Spain or the Canaries, very similar to sherry) which was bought for £196 by the mayor and other gentlemen and distributed to the hungry population.

Matthews 195

The plague continued intermittently in the town into the 18th century. In 1710 the borough council paid 1s 1d for a proclamation to be made about the plague and other matters. 

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History’ is a four-part series written by Dr John Sell. ‘Introduction and the Black Death with Particular Reference to S.W. England’ is Part 1 in the series.


When the Black Death arrived in Europe. Interview with Monica H. Green in BBC History Magazine June 2022

Cornwall in the Thirteenth Century, Dr James Whetter

Cornwall, Philip Payton

Mediaeval Cornwall, Elliott-Binns

Parochial history of Cornwall, Peter Thurstan

A History of St Ives, Lelant, Zennor and Towednack, John Hobson Matthews

Featured image: The Depiction of Death Sweeping Through a Crowd (Wikimedia Commons)

One reply on “Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History: Part 1”

Leave a Reply