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In the Plague Years

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F. F. Cartwright, "The Years of the Plague", in A Social History of Medicine (London: Longman, 1977), pp. 58-74.

In "The Years of Plague" F. F. Cartwright provides an overview of conditions existing in Britain at the beginning of the 14th century and examines the impact of plague on subsequent changes to social, political, and economic systems that took place during the following centuries. He also provides a detailed discussion of the causes, occurrence, and disappearance of plague, effectively debunking the myth that the Great Fire of London in 1666 led to its disappearance in Britain. He concludes on a sobering note, observing that eight centuries lay between the Justinian plague and the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, yet it is only three centuries since the disappearance of plague in Europe. Thus, he reminds us that, though plague seems a long distant disease, it may yet be lurking in some unknown corner of the earth, ready once again to burst onto the world stage.

Cartwright describes a Britain that was flourishing in 1300. The population was increasing, the climate was conducive to agriculture, trade was expanding, there was a stable social system, famine was rare, and the people were healthier and more prosperous than they had been in the past. However, increasing population and favourable climatic conditions led to an expansion of farming into previously marginal land, making it vulnerable to land degradation and changes in climatic conditions; trade led to increased exposure to exotic diseases to which the population had no immunity; and there was growing resentment towards a ruling class viewed as foreigners, even after 250 years. In spite of the seeming stability of society at the beginning of the century, enormous social upheaval occurred during the latter part of the 14th century, leading to the demise of the Feudal system and increasing challenges to the established authorities of the day.

The massive loss of population caused by the spread of plague in 1348-1350 could, on a simplistic view, be credited with causing such widespread social change. However, Cartwright cautions against assuming that these changes occurred solely as a result of the Black Death. He makes a cogent argument for the Black Death as a catalyst, but not the cause, of change. Discontent with the Church and the ruling class, and the demise of the feudal system, had already begun prior to the Black Death, which merely hastened changes made inevitable by inequitable laws, increasing freedom for some and the attendant dissatisfaction of those who were not.

Further, he argues that it was not so much the number of people that died but the pattern of mortality that led to social upheaval. Had the pattern been uniform, he states, fewer workers would have farmed less land with little effect on the social system. However, the uneven pattern of mortality led to anomalies which served to emphasise the inequitable status of workers in different areas. In those areas with high mortality, there was a shortage

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