Counting the Black Death

We know the epidemic known as the Black Death killed a lot of people in Britain and Europe. It put an end to the gloriously labour intensive architectural style of Decorated Gothic, to be replaced by the more austere Perpendicular. The manpower shortage was so desperate it led to the Peasants’ Revolt demanding better wages in England, and for the Pope to make it legal to  enslaver non-Christians legal.

But there were no censuses in the late 14th century so numbers are always estimates. But the latest Current Archaeology describes a brilliant way to measure the toll indirectly – by counting pottery. Pottery was essential for storing food, for dining, art and architecture, so numbers should show a collapse when lots of people died.

Led by Professor Carenza Lewis at the University of Lincoln, the research draws on data from over 2,000 test pits that had been dug in 55 rural settlements across 6 counties, over a 10 year period, by thousands of members of the public under professional archaeological supervision.

There has been long-running debate about the impact of the Black Death in England, with estimates hampered b y a lack of before-and-after population data – but now the ew project has provided a wealth of information to add to this picture.

The team focussed on pottery sherds, as a durable and easily identified, recovered and dated indicator of human presence. Their findings, recently published in Antiquity, reveal ‘eye-watering’ drops in pottery use between the High Medieval (early 12th century) and late Medieval (late 14th – late 16th century) periods across the area studied, pointing to drastic and enduring corresponding falls in population.

Overall, the researchers noted an average fall of 45% in pottery finds, but the study also enabled them to pinpoint the most severely hit areas, and to compare results for individual plots and parishes up to whole towns and counties. While around 90% of the settlements examined had suffered at least some decline, the impact on some locations such as Binham in Norfolk, Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Shillington in Bedfordshire, and Great Amwell in Hertfordshire, had been simply catastrophic, with drops in pottery finds exceeding 70%. Worse still had been the fate of Gaywood and Paston, both in Norfolk, where the team found a decline of around 85%.

“The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death on England during the ‘calamitous’ 14th century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists’, said Carenza. ‘Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards, but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable, and scalable population data for the period…. Just as significantly, this new research suggests that there is an almost unlimited reservoir of new evidence capable of revealing change in settlement and demography still surviving beneath today’s rural parishes, towns and villages – anyone could excavate, anywhere in the UK, Europe, or even beyond, and discover how their community fared in the aftermath of the Black Death.’

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