In the summer of 1348, the English could be forgiven for thinking themselves unconquerable ….and so begins this fascinating documentary “A History of Britain, King Death” which details the horrific toll the black death had on medieval England. It killed almost half of the country’s total population.
This episode, written and presented by Simon Schama, was recently repeated on the BBC and some fine upstanding Brit has uploaded it to Vimeo, which you can view below. It’s a little dry towards the end, but the first section is truly disturbing when you consider the unimaginable fear people living in those days must have felt.
Schama explains in gruesome detail how the plague spreads through the body. Around six days from the bite from an infected flea, the swellings (the buboes), begin. Appearing on the victim’s neck, armpit or groin – followed by a terribly violent fever and the start of agonising pain.
Within a week the body is overwhelmed, and if the dreaded infection spreads to the lungs, death will happen in a few days after a torrid of bloody coughing.
Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin witnessed the black death around him and wrote the following, whilst waiting for his own infection. He died from the plague in 1349.
” We see death coming into our midst like foul smoke. A plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy. Woe is me of the shilling in the armpit. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder. A grievous thing of ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death “