Abandoned Communities ..... The Black Death
Tusmore Scheduled Monument, part of Tusmore Estate, and a section of the A43
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The Black Death entered Britain in 1348.  Many epidemics occurred over the next three centuries, but the most terrible epidemic of all was the very first.  Within a year or so it had swept through Britain, and then it declined and came to an end in 1350.


Nearly all towns and villages were affected by the epidemic of 1348.  It is possible that a large number were entirely depopulated, but there are only a few cases where documentary evidence exists that confirms that a village became empty.


We know that two villages in Oxfordshire were wiped out.  They were Tilgarsley and Tusmore.  It is thought that the Black Death first arrived in Britain through the port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset.  It may have made independent entries through other ports of England and South Wales, including Bristol, where enormous mortality occurred.  Its main route into Oxfordshire may have been from the west of England and Bristol in particular.  Between March and May 1349 it caused devastation throughout Oxfordshire.


The progress of the Black Death through Britain is well described in Philip Ziegler, The Black Death, Penguin, 1970.  


What kind of disease was the Black Death?  For most of the twentieth century it was generally believed that it was bubonic plague, together with its two variants, septicaemic and pneumonic plague.  This belief was based largely on contemporary descriptions of the appearance of sick people.  Boccaccio, for example, in the Decameron, reported tumours in the groin or armpits, and black or livid spots of various sizes on the arm, thigh or elsewhere.  Tumours in the groin or armpits were identified with the buboes or swellings that are characteristic of the plague.


Bubonic plague is transmitted by a bacterium, the bacillus Yersinia Pestis.  Fleas and rats participate in the process of transmission, and human beings usually become infected when bitten by a flea carrying the bacteria.


More recently, however, Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan have argued that the Black Death was not bubonic plague, but a haemorrhagic disease transmitted by an unknown virus.  They have taken another look at the documentary evidence from the three centuries or so before the Black Death disappeared for the last time, and they have analysed the burial records contained in parish registers from the mid sixteenth century, when it became compulsory to record any deaths from the pestilence.


Read Scott S and Duncan C, The Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer, Wiley, 2004, or their article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal.


Reasons given by Scott and Duncan for believing that the Black Death was not bubonic plague include:


·    The Black Death occurred in countries where rats or fleas, or in the case of Iceland both, did not exist.


·    The distance it travelled was often much greater than rats could have moved in a given period of time.


·     By the seventeenth century some knowledge of the characteristics of the disease and how to reduce its spread had been gained.  For example, it was known that direct infection from one person to another occurred, and that a period of quarantine of at least 40 days was needed to prevent infection.  


The analysis of parish records by Scott and Duncan has confirmed that the disease spread in the manner that would be expected if direct infection occurred, and it is consistent with the quarantine period of 40 days.  They have calculated that the disease was latent for about 12 days after infection, the patient would then be infectious without symptoms for about 20 days, and symptoms would be evident for about 5 days before the patient died.


Scott and Duncan have proposed that the disease was carried by an unknown haemorrhagic virus.  They speculate that although there has not been an epidemic since the seventeenth century the virus may be still be dormant somewhere in the world, and if so there is a possibility that it could return and cause further devastation.