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How the Black Death swept through Kent and changed the world forever

Mass graves, abandoned villages and a death rate that would make other diseases turn green with envy... before turning black and keeling over dead.

The bubonic plague, aka the Black Death, was responsible for the worst pandemic in history; and whose scars remain etched in the very landscape of Kent.

Millions of people perished in the 14th Century due to the Black Death. Stock image
Millions of people perished in the 14th Century due to the Black Death. Stock image

Put simply, if you're a time traveller who's accidentally dialled 2020 into your time machine and decided you need to leave immediately, make sure you don't dial in 1348. It's much worse - probably.

In some places, contemporary accounts suggest no one was even left to carry the dead to their graves, while other places, such as the Lost Village of Dode near Luddesdown, were completely wiped off the map for several hundred years.

Words alone perhaps don't do justice in explaining quite how bad the situation was.

The first time the plague hit Europe in the 5th Century, the world's population escaped relatively lightly, with 25 million deaths.

Things got a lot worse when the second pandemic - the Black Death - hit in 1347, sweeping in from Central Asia, through Europe and North Africa and taking an estimated 75 to 200 million lives in just four years.

Luigi Sabatelli's 19th-Century etching depicts the plague of Florence in 1348
Luigi Sabatelli's 19th-Century etching depicts the plague of Florence in 1348

Spread by fleas and lice, carried on rats and other animals, as well as spread between humans, it wasn't long before the Black Death hit British shores around June 1348.

If you got it, modern medicine suggests untreated victims had a roughly 50/50 chance of survival, although the poor health of the population might have meant the average medieval person's chances were worse. Sufferers had a week of feeling increasingly rotten, developing muscle cramps, lymph gland swellings called buboes, and gangrene - and were highly likely to be dead within 10 days. No wonder people flocked to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral to pray for heavenly protection and an end to the 'great pestilence'.

Britain's population is estimated to have been between three to seven million at that time, and by 1351 the disease is thought to have claimed at least a third of that total, although estimates suggest up to 60 per cent of the population could have died; meaning that up to four million people could have died in Britain alone as a result of the plague.

The statistics paint a bleak picture but a contemporary account from William de la Dene, a public notary who worked between 1317 and 1354, gives a rare human voice to the suffering.

Writing at Rochester Cathedral in his Historia Roffensis (History of Rochester) he recounts how: "A great mortality ... destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance. Alas, this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard."

Rochester Cathedral
Rochester Cathedral

It's a grim account but William's sympathies seem oddly weighted toward the upper echelons of society, as he continues: "As remarked above, such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages. Instead, because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time for idleness, thieving and other outrages, and thus the poor and servile have been enriched and the rich impoverished. As a result, churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread."

These days we might be less inclined to feel sympathy for the "worthies" forced to thresh their own corn, and more inclined to question how easy a time the poor were having during these years of plague and famine.

But while William's sympathies might seem odd, perhaps that's because Britain was on the cusp of a social revolution that still resonates today - for the plague had set the country on the road to the Peasants' Revolt, reducing the number of labourers, who began to demand better wages and working hours.

Led by Wat Tyler from Kent, who marched from Canterbury to London in 1381 to demand social reform, the revolt ended in failure, with Tyler's head being paraded on a pole around the capital - but the feudal system as it had existed throughout the Middle Ages would never quite look the same again... all because of the plague.

Whether or not our most essential workers here in the 21st Century are paid their full due, and whether a pandemic might yet have an impact on their treatment, is a debate for another time.

Back during the Black Death, William de la Dene seems to have overlooked that the main issue facing society wasn't that the working classes were lazy or greedy, but that half of them were dead.

And the point was made very clear in a letter ordering the closing of the parish of Dode in 1367, written by the Bishop of Rochester Thomas Trilleck, who noted "the said Church of Dode was altogether destroyed and deserted, and no parishioner thereof inhabits or for fifteen years has inhabited the parish".

The church at The Lost Village of Dode in Luddesdown
The church at The Lost Village of Dode in Luddesdown

Elsewhere evidence shows other parts of the county suffered just as badly - at the lost villages of Midley and Eastbridge on Romney Marsh; at St Clement's Church in Sandwich, which had to extend its graveyard for plague victims; and at West Malling, where a plague burial pit is said to lie beneath Banky Meadows near the A20.

Debate surrounds whether the latter - and other rumoured plague pits around the county - are attributable to the 14th Century pandemic or the later outbreaks of the 17th Century, but one thing is for sure, the plague left its mark.

The disease would return time and again afterwards, and while medical advances means the plague is now treatable, outbreaks were still recorded in the first half of the 20th Century, and only three years ago an outbreak in Madagascar killed more than 200 people.

Back at Dode - forgotten and tucked away in the shadow of Holly Hill - the lost village is today in the care of former Page and Wells building surveyor Doug Chapman, who spent years restoring the dilapidated shell of a church he bought in 1990, and now hires it out for weddings, pagan handfastings and baby-naming ceremonies.

Doug explained life under the recent pandemic was a little easier in Dode this time around.

Doug Chapman, owner of Dode Church
Doug Chapman, owner of Dode Church

"I'm in lockdown more or less and we're not doing any weddings or any baby-namings until we can get out of this," he said. "This has changed me. I live in the country but you still notice the lack of traffic noise and the lack of pollution is beginning to show. It will probably come back but in the meantime all I can do is enjoy the dawn chorus and the sunset without streaks across the sky.

"You get back in a way to something like how they might have seen nature back then and you appreciate it more.

"You don't want to be disparaging about people dying but at the same time it's not a third of the population.

"Back then the people here were struggling to survive on more than one level - they'd been hit by famine before the plague. They weren't anywhere near as able to roll with it.They couldn't do anything about it. They were in a much worse state than we are."

"I live with it," he added. "I can be up there on a winter's afternoon and stand there and those people can be there with you."

What might they tell Doug if they could speak? Perhaps they might raise a heavenly glass of Chateau de Chassilier and muse: "Coronavirus? You were lucky!"

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