Fourteenth century London was characterized by the presence of a plague amongst the population, known as the Black Death, which killed one in every three people living in London. In London two emergency burial grounds were dug outside the walls of the City, one at East Smithfield and one in Farringdon. In recent years excavations which have taken place in and around London, to prepare the way for the underground Crossrail line, have unearthed a third large burial pit, in Charterhouse Square, near the Barbican, in which the victims of the plague seemed to have been buried. James Morgan of the BBC explains that, “In March 2013, Crossrail engineers uncovered 25 skeletons in a 5.5m-wide shaft – alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century. Samples from 12 of the corpses were taken for forensic analysis. In at least four cases, scientists found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis, confirming they had contact with the plague prior to their death.
Recently it was announced that analysis of the bodies and of wills registered in London at the time has cast doubt on the notion that the epidemic was caused by a highly contagious strain spread by the fleas on rats, and pointed to the idea that the plague was an airborne disease. Vanessa Thorpe, writing for the Observer explains, “According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim.”
According to Vanessa Thorpe, “The skeletons at Charterhouse Square reveal that the population of London was also in generally poor health when the disease struck… [with] evidence of rickets, anaemia, bad teeth and childhood malnutrition.Furthermore, there is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.
Other events to occur during the fourteenth century included the domination of the English language and culture amongst the ruling classes. For hundreds of years since the Norman invasion of England, the Norman language and barons had ruled the country. However over time the Normans had married into and begun to adopt the ways and culture of the majority Anglo-Saxon culture, the result being that by the fourteenth century, it has been said that both rulers and subjects regarded themselves as English and spoke the English language.
Interestingly analysis of the skeletons found in Charterhouse near the Barbican, found that, “40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland – showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today”.