The pestilence

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© Bob Denton 2014

The Pestilence   1348 – 1350

Today it is believed that the plague started in south-east Asia, from where it was spread to China, central Asia and southern Russia by the conquests of the Mongols.

None of this was of course known when just two months after the fall of Calais, October 1347, Genoese merchant ships entered the harbour of Messina in Sicily. The sailors and passengers were unwell, they had black swellings at the armpits and groin, in great pain many died within five days. It soon spread to the port’s inhabitants.

The Sicilians forced them out of port and they sailed on to one ship to Marseilles, others to Corsica and Sardinia. Other ships harboured at Marseilles soon carried the illness to Barcelona and Valencia. England was secure for a while but then a ship from Calais travelled to Dorset and spread the plague there too.

It became known as the Pestilence it was a century later that it was called the Black Death. No absolute numbers can be quoted but the assumption is that over a third to approaching a half of Europeans would die from the plague in the next thirty months. Some twenty-four million dead by the end of 1349. That’s to ignore those affected in China, India, the Middle East and North Africa.

In Paris half of its population, some 100,000 perished. Cities like Arras, Carcassonne, Laon, Montpellier, Reims and Rouen were so badly affected that they never quite recovered their previous status again.

It was no respecter of status, in Avignon nine cardinals and seventy prelates died in the Papal community. The graveyards could not cope so Pope Clement VI consecrated the River Rhone as a burial ground and bodies were just tossed in to the river.

Alfonso XI of Castile was the only monarch to die. Edward III’s second daughter Joanna died in Bordeaux on her way to marry the heir of Castile. The French queen died as did the wife of the Dauphin. Three successive Archbishops of Canterbury were lost to the plague in a year.

Medieval science and medicine was not able to identify the cause or the mechanisms of its transmission. The University of Paris proclaimed that it was the triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn that had occurred back in 1345. Others blamed it on gases released by a major Italian earthquake that struck between Naples and Venice in 1347.

Philip VI proclaimed that God was punishing France for its sins. Many believed it was God’s wrath. It certainly brought a halt to the war as England lost a third of its population, France a quarter of its.

Combat of the Thirty – this event took place in the spring of 1351 between two Breton fortresses involved in the Breton War of Succession, Ploërmel and Josselin, the former controlled by John de Montfort’s forces and the latter by those of Charles de Blois. The two forces should have been bound by the Truce of Calais of 1347, but the war was always somewhat loose and free-ranging, with little central control.

Charles’s commander, the Breton Jean de Beaumanoir, based at Josselin challenged the English de Montfort man, Robert Bemborough based at Ploërmel to single combat. They subsequently agreed to an armed melée, an organised tournament with thirty knights on each side. They met at the chêne de Mi-Voie (Halfway Oak) between the two strongholds.

They fought on foot with axes, daggers, maces, spears and swords, though the proceedings were carried out within the chivalric code of the age. Referees would start and halt proceedings, for example for refreshments and medical interventions.

When Bemborough was slain the English knights formed in to a formidably tight group that the French had difficulty in attacking. It was eventually broken by a solitary an individual on horseback riding in to the structure and the English crumbled. Fatalities have been claimed between four and nine, but all agree that every one of them on both sides bore wounds of different levels of severity.

The French prevailed, not that this had any bearing whatsoever on the overall war, but it was soon heralded, and songs were written about it. It was held up as a supreme example of the chivalry of the time and became one of the most celebrated events of the Hundred Years’ War.

Forward to Battle of Poitiers – Back to Calais
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014