Monday, 23 November 2009

The Black Death

The bubonic plague reached Europe from China
via the Middle East (Asia Minor) and began to 
spread over western Europe during the late 1340s.
It is impossible to know with any degree of accuracy
the population of Scotland during the medieval period
and the scarcity of evidence has so far prevented
modern scholars investigating the effects of the Black
Death on Scotland in detail. In 1349 the Scots were
evidently delighted to hear of the fate that had overtaken
the English as the plague took its relentless toll, 
sweeping from the Channel and Bristol Channel ports
through the Midlands and on into the northern counties. 

This was regarded as just retribution and at the same
time the Scots gathered their forces around Selkirk,
‘laughing at their enemies’ and preparing to invade. 
But as Ziegler notes, it was their last laugh, because 
just as they prepared to march ‘a fearful mortality fell
upon them and the Scots were scattered by sudden
and savage death so that within a short period, some
five thousand died’. The army dispersed, men dying 
on the roadside or taking the infection back to their
homes in the more populated parts of the country. 

Actual evidence on the impact is hard to come by 
though it is known that 24 canons of the priory of St 
Andrews also died in 1349. The Scottish winter possibly
helped retard the plague’s progress but this was 
short-lived and during 1350 it spread rapidly over the 
whole country. Demographers think we can assume that
because of the dispersed settlement pattern the effects 
of the plague were less severe than in England, where
data for upland areas suggest mortality rates of 33—50
per cent, as compared to a possible 25—30 per cent in
Scotland. The most striking feature of all the surviving 
accounts is the statement that a third of the population 
perished, though this may have been an exaggeration. 

Two chroniclers, John of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun,
left descriptions of its impact, which can be read in the 
archive sources, while the later Book of Pluscarden says
a third of the people died — with the poor suffering fir more
than the rich. On a political level it would be reasonable to
assume that relatively small losses were sustained by the
elite but the plague nevertheless affected Anglo-Scottish 
relations in that the English failed to capitalize on the lasting
success that might have been possible following the Scots 
defeat at Nevilles Cross and the capture of David II. A 
second major epidemic struck in 1361—62, but it may 
well have remained endemic thereafter, Another severe
outbreak of bubonic plague occurred in the mid-1640s,
after which it largely disappeared from Scotland. This
could well be explained by changes in climate or other 
environmental factors.

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