♪♪ -In 1348, the Black Death struck the British Isles and spread like wildfire.
It's believed to be the most deadly pandemic in history.
Before the Black Death, the population of mainland Britain was around 6 million.
Two years later, only an estimated 3 million were left alive.
Why did this disease claim so many, and how did the awful death toll change Britain?
In this series, I'm reinvestigating some of the most dramatic and brutal chapters in British history.
It wasn't just one generation.
It was three generations losing their lives.
Bum, bum, bum.
These stories are part of our national mythology, harboring mysteries that have intrigued us for centuries.
It's chilling to think that this could actually be evidence in a murder investigation.
But with the passage of time, we have new ways to unlock their secrets using scientific advances and a modern perspective.
It's a horrible psychosexual form of torture.
-I'm going to uncover forgotten witnesses, re-examine old evidence, and follow new clues to get closer to the truth.
-It is one of the great British mysteries.
-It was one of those moments, I'm afraid, for a historian that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
[ Crow caws ] ♪♪ -"Lucy Worsley Investigates" was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
♪♪ -Bubonic plague, the pestilence, the great mortality.
There's lots of different names for the Black Death, infamous for the horrible boils or buboes that break out on peoples' skin.
It struck Britain many times, famously in London in 1665.
But I'm interested in the first and the worst outbreak in 1348 when something like half of the population got wiped out.
I want to investigate how the Black Death transformed society, what happened to it during and after this terrible medieval pandemic.
♪♪ First, I want to understand what the Black Death was and why the outbreak in Britain in 1348 was so deadly.
After all this time, science is still uncovering new clues.
Stored in this underground vault in London are 600 skeletons.
Each box contains the bones of someone buried in a mass grave at the height of the plague outside the old city walls.
This plague pit was unearthed in the 1980s during building work and excavated by archeologists.
Strangely beautiful thing.
Look at his teeth.
-I know, they're fantastic, aren't they?
-Osteologist Jelena Bekvalac is curator of this collection.
These are definitely Black Death victims.
But for centuries, science was uncertain what caused the disease.
Then in 2011, DNA taken from the teeth of these skeletons confirmed what had actually killed them.
This has been a great mystery, hasn't it, for 700 years, at least.
-Yeah, we had these individuals, and then scientists used the DNA analysis recreating and reconstructing an ancient genome.
And by doing that, they were able to identify that the actual causative agent was a bacteria and it was Yersinia pestis.
-What did you say?
-And why was this particular bacterium quite so dangerous?
-This one was particularly virulent to us because we, as a population at that time, had never been exposed to that bacteria.
So there was no immunity within us.
And therefore, when you're exposed to something that's new, it really then impacts onto the population.
And subsequently, after that episode of the Black Death that we know killed so many people, there were other outbreaks, but it didn't have that same impact.
-Because of herd immunity.
-Because of herd immunity, yes.
So you're building up that lovely sort of immunity to it.
-We all know what herd immunity is now.
-[ Laughing ] Yeah, yes.
-So just at the moment he was going into the plague pit to be buried, I imagine that he would have had big swelling buboes on him.
Is that right?
-Yes, that would be where you get the swellings in the armpits and the groins.
-What is that exactly, these swellings?
What was it?
Is there something inside them?
-Well, there'd be nasty, dead cells and pus and poison.
-So very uncomfortable, be very sore, probably have horrible headaches, feel very sort of fatigued, might feel sick, sweats.
You'd feel really, very, very unwell and under the weather.
-And where did this particular bacterium come from?
-Well, they believe that it probably came from Central Asia and then it would travel across, because also we have to remember at this time that you've got trade routes and people are moving around, so you've got quite a lot of movement of people.
So it probably started from there.
-Emerging global trade routes in the 14th century exposed Britain to a deadly new disease.
It had raged through Asia and Europe, wiping out millions before arriving on these shores.
Catch it and you could be dead in days, even hours.
So how did this bacterium spread so aggressively and kill so many people?
There are some images of life in London that got burned into my mind at an early age, and this is one of them.
It's a scene from the kiddie version of the story of "Dick Whittington and His Cat."
Dick Whittington, being a lad who came to London to seek his fortune, but who had to sleep in a horrible attic infested with rats.
Here they all are running over his bed, climbing out of the window.
And I'm pretty sure it's images like this, if not this very one, that made a link in my mind between the spread of the plague and rodents.
But I agree this isn't exactly solid scientific or historical evidence.
I'm going to have to do better than the Ladybird version.
What can the latest science tell me about how this disease might have spread?
A study from 2018 argues that the Black Death was also spread by human fleas and lice, infecting people as they bit into their flesh.
One of the researchers was epidemiologist Dr. Fabienne Krauer.
She's in Switzerland, so this will be an online consultation.
So, Fabienne is in my waiting room.
Let me admit her.
There she is.
So there's these human fleas that can take the plague from one human being to another human being.
-Yes, it's interesting.
Lice and fleas were very common in the 14th century.
-So, would that be through people's bedding or their clothes, or how can you see that working?
-Yeah, so body lice and human fleas, they typically live in clothes, in the seams or in the foldings of clothes.
So we know that in the 14th century, the handing down of clothes, that was a real thing.
And we think that this is how the plague could have spread, because people were passing on clothes of someone who died of plague, and then they got themselves infected.
This is so heartbreaking because people wouldn't have known, would they?
They wouldn't have known that this is how they were actually killing their friends and relatives.
-No, people had no idea.
But there are also other forms of plague, such as pneumonic plague, which is transmitted directly between people through coughing, through infectious droplets.
-Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Fabienne, just for a second, 'cause this is all so new to me.
You're taking me into new ground here.
Did you call it the pneumonic version of the disease, like pneumonia?
So pneumonia happens when someone who has a plague infection, when these people cough, they expel infectious droplets.
And these can be inhaled by other people, which cause primary pneumonic plague in these people.
And that's a very fatal and rapidly progressing disease.
-So it spreads -- it can also spread through the air from someone you're living with, someone you're in the same room as, and it's to do with breathing the disease, one person to another?
-Yes, it requires rather close contact.
So it's usually people within the same household that are infected, or people who care for someone who is sick.
-That's a horrible idea, isn't it?
Someone who's taking care of somebody could be infecting themself through their compassion.
-Yeah, that's -- that's indeed horrible.
And if someone had pneumonic plague, then their fate was basically sealed.
So they were going to die, for sure.
And the fatality for pneumonic plague was about 100%.
♪♪ -So much new information here.
I hadn't realized that there were these different variants within plague.
There's the bubonic plague, where you get the swellings in the armpits, but also the pneumonic plague, which is lung to lung.
And Fabienne's talking about so many different vectors of transmission.
We've got the rats and the fleas.
There's also body lice and the secondhand clothing and just being together in a small space.
No one was immune to this disease.
Rich or poor, young or old, the Black Death ripped through all levels of European medieval society.
Now, what I do know about medieval society is that at the top of it, we have the king, and then below him we have his knights.
Here they are.
[ Imitates galloping ] These gentlemen give him their loyalty.
He gives them their land.
But the vast majority, 90% of the population, are in fact made up of all these guys, the peasants.
And most of them aren't free.
They're tied to the land from which they scratch a living, land that's owned by the local lord of the manor, and the whole of the social structure is reinforced by the church.
Each Sunday, the priest preaches to his parishioners that this is the way the world is.
This is God's grand design.
♪♪ How did the Black Death transform this rigidly structured society?
I want to investigate the world of the vast majority of its victims, the rural peasants.
But contemporary descriptions of how they lived can be misleading.
According to these images, it looks rather lovely.
Here's a happy agricultural worker enjoying the spring air, sowing his seeds in the ground, surrounded by birds and leaves.
And here are some farmers bringing in a wonderful crop of corn.
But these images are from the "Luttrell Psalter."
It's a really fantastic illuminated manuscript commissioned by Luttrell himself, a landowner.
He wanted to make living on the land look like it was a lovely thing to do.
I'm not sure how reliable these images are as a guide to everyday life.
♪♪ Firsthand accounts of 14th century peasant life don't exist.
Most people were illiterate.
There were no gritty life stories to consult.
Though they did pay taxes and rent to their noble overlords.
To understand how the majority lived 700 years ago, you follow the money.
In 14th century England, rural peasants were summoned before a court of the manor on which they lived and worked to pay rent and tax.
These transactions were recorded in court rolls, and they covered every aspect of peasant life.
Fines were paid for disobedience of any kind, like leaving the manor without permission.
Tax was paid on crops grown on the parcel of land you leased from the Lord.
When you died, your family paid a death tax to inherit the lease on that parcel of land.
♪♪ In the county of Suffolk in a temperature-controlled vault are some of Europe's rarest medieval manuscripts.
They're the court rolls of a small Suffolk village called Walsham le Willows.
I do know my way to the Suffolk Archives 'cause I've been there before, but the stuff I normally look at is much later than this.
These court rolls cover the period before, during, and after the Black Death struck England in 1348.
What can they tell me about the peasantry and the impact of the pandemic on their lives?
Oh, wow, look, they're all out on the table for me already.
Oh, and aren't they fantastic?
So we're looking at lots and lots of very neat Latin here.
It's so neat, it's got a sort of Excel spreadsheet quality to it.
But I know that buried underneath that are real human beings, even if they're treated here as units of taxation, almost.
Now, I know that this set of documents is so important because it's so comprehensive.
It goes on for years and years and years in the same village, and you don't normally get that sort of longitudinal view into the life of a community because one bit might survive, another bit not.
So this is just remarkable this, the completeness of this record for 14th century Walsham.
The rolls are written in medieval Latin.
Fortunately for me, there's an English translation.
Mm, I did study medieval Latin, but a long time ago and not very seriously.
So I'm having to rely on my translation here.
The population of Walsham prior to the Black Death was around 1,200.
Plague strikes the village in June 1349.
The court session for that month shows a huge spike in death tax being paid.
And it was a very busy court session because basically 103 people have all died.
So that's in the last three weeks in this particular sitting at the court.
They had to deal with the business of 103 deaths.
And you can see that the clerk has run out of room.
He's gone down the first piece.
He's had to attach another one to keep going.
And what's kind of chilling is that he doesn't care that these people have died.
What he cares about is that there's business to be done, because every time you die, when you are a serf, your family has to pay a tax to the landlord.
And that tax is called a heriot.
And in some cases, the heriot is a horse.
And in other cases, it's a yew.
So basically, when your father dies, you have to give the landlord one of your animals.
There's clearly good money to be made.
But the 103 deaths listed in this court session are just the heads of families.
Younger men, women, and children, a good 80% of the community, aren't recorded.
They're not economically relevant to the records.
Factor them in, and the deaths must number close to 600.
So that's half of the village dying of plague, matching estimates for the whole country.
These rolls of a micro study for all of Britain during the pandemic.
And here's a particularly interesting family who are marked out with a cross for some reason.
I can make out their name is Cranmer.
That's William Cranmer, who's the patriarch of the family.
He's the granddad.
And he held a messuage -- that means a piece of property, possibly with a house on it.
And it says he also held a tenement, and he's died, and he has to pay a heriot, the death tax.
Then his son and heir, a second generation, he dies.
And then there's -- and a third generation who die.
His son Robert dies, and the heriot has to be paid.
But this time, they haven't got any horses left.
They have to pay a cow.
It's a less good animal for that because the lord's already got the two horses.
This particular family, the Cranmers, they stand out here because of the awfulness of what happened to them.
It wasn't just one generation or two generations.
It was three generations losing their lives.
bum, bum, bum, all within the same few weeks in the same -- in the same village.
♪♪ The Cranmer clan seem like a typical peasant family.
I want to investigate their life experiences to understand how Britain was changed by the plague.
Armed with my copy of the court rolls, next stop for me is Walsham le Willows.
20 miles inland from the Suffolk coast, the present day village of Walsham still clusters around the local church, Saint Mary's, just as it did 700 years ago.
So far, I've looked at Walsham during the time plague struck the village.
But now I'm going to wind the clock back to the years just before the Black Death.
What was pre-pandemic life like for the Cranmers?
And is there any surviving trace of them left today?
I need some local knowledge.
Oh, hello, Frances.
It's Lucy here.
I am in Walsham.
Left, and look for the school.
I'm off to see a lady called Frances Jenner.
She's the chairperson of the local history society, and she's one of those people who says, "Oh, I'm only an amateur historian," but actually, I suspect that she knows everything that there is to know.
♪♪ Like me, Frances is fascinated by the court rolls of Walsham, and she's been studying them for years.
It was pretty agricultural in the 14th century.
Is it still quite agricultural around here?
-It is very much so.
Still a very rural community.
-So where are you bringing me, Frances?
-I'm bringing you to Cranmer farm.
-Oh, my goodness!
Still got their name on it.
-It does, yes.
-700 years later.
-It does, yes.
-Though it's been rebuilt since.
It's been rebuilt later, but they would have had a dwelling here, and they farmed the lands around here.
-Do you think they farmed in this very field, then?
We're totally in their neck of the woods?
-Quite possible that they did and that we are actually walking on where they farmed and lived.
And having spent a lot of time combing through the court rolls, have you developed in your mind the character at this William Cranmer, the eldest one, the granddad of the family?
-I have, because actually, if you look at him, he actually has more entries than anybody else.
And there are lots of instances of him being fined for various breaches of grazing too many sheep on the verges and all sorts of things.
And I just get the impression that he was a bit of a one, really.
-A sharp operator?
-I think so.
That's what we would call him today.
And how hard or difficult do you think the lives of the Cranmers were living here?
-Prior to the Black Death, there'd been seven years of famine due to the unseasonably odd weather conditions.
-Excessive rain storms, and we have to also remember that in those days, the wheat wasn't the wheat that we know today.
It was really tall, so storms would basically flatten it and then it would just rot in the fields.
So that would mean hardship.
That would mean no food, no crops to sell.
They would still have to pay the taxes to the lord of the manor.
So they were being squeezed basically from both sides.
They weren't actually making any money, but they still had to pay their taxes.
So life would have been hard.
They would have been hungry.
They would have been poor.
Life really would have been pretty miserable.
♪♪ -In these years of pre-pandemic hardship, old William Cranmer is frequently fined for keeping more animals than permitted, for taking firewood without permission, even for not informing on a neighbor when they break the rules.
William might have a few acres of land, but there's three generations, his son, his grandson, and their extended families, all living on it.
Perhaps there's just too many of them for the land to support.
The Walsham court rolls list numerous villages in the same situation.
While they struggle, they're also duty bound to work the lord's personal farmlands as well as their own.
It's the same across swathes of Britain, but as I work through the court rolls, I come across another strain on the Cranmer clan's hard-pressed resources.
You don't often get women mentioned in these court rolls because it's mainly about the tenants.
But if you travel back in time, we seem to have a granddaughter of wily William Cranmer, the grandfather of the family.
Her name's Olivia.
And the reason that she comes up in the court records is because of a scandal.
She's had to pay a child wite, which is a special fine of two shillings and eight pence, and she's had to pay this because she gave birth outside wedlock.
She's had an illegitimate child.
♪♪ Having a child out of wedlock in medieval society was condemned by the church, but it wasn't uncommon.
The problem was more practical.
It was another mouth to feed.
Who would provide?
In Olivia's case, it was swiftly solved.
Shortly after she's fined, the court rolls record Olivia marrying a Robert Hayes, a peasant with his own land holdings.
Was Roberts the father?
Was this a forced marriage?
The rolls make no mention.
Now that I've learned more about the Cranmers, I'm intrigued to know how they and so many like them reacted as plague approached Britain.
In the summer of 1348, plague had spread across the English Channel aboard trading ships.
Contemporary accounts agree that the first outbreaks in Britain were in Weymouth and Bristol.
The disease caught fire and spread from the coast into the countryside.
Now, Walsham might feel like it's in the middle of nowhere, but it isn't, and it wasn't in the 14th century either.
It was connected, as the world was, through global shipping routes.
Walsham is 100 miles away from London, but crucially, it's only 26 miles, or a day's walk, from the international port of Ipswich.
Ipswich was just a day's sail from France.
News of the Black Death's horrors found their way across the channel.
Most accounts coming from Europe were utterly apocalyptic.
And this sounds frankly implausible.
He describes here a rain of frogs, snakes, lizards.
and scorpions, thunderbolts and lightning.
This sounds like crazy pub talk, but then, much more believably, he talks about the plague traveling via Genovese ships to Marseilles and then to Avignon, where... Oh, golly, where half the people have died.
So once he's got to France, that's roughly only 24 hours journey away from this village, from this pub.
You can imagine people here laughing, maybe, speculating, maybe really frightening themselves as they talked about it on a Friday night.
♪♪ Accounts like this reached Britain throughout 1348, well before the Black Death struck Walsham.
But is there evidence in the court rolls that even rumors about plague changed people's behavior?
Here's a meeting of the court from the autumn before the Black Death.
And here we've got -- how many men?
I think it's -- yes, it's 11 men in total who are in trouble 'cause they've not turned up to work.
They get fined for not doing their duties, including William Cranmer, actually.
What might they have been doing instead?
Well, this might be in my imagination, but just up here, we've got some other men who were fined, who were punished, for brewing and selling ale in breach of the assize.
I am tempted to think that these 11 men thought, "Right, the plague is coming.
We're jolly well not going to go to work.
We're going to go to the pub instead.
Let's make merry, because tomorrow, we die."
♪♪ It might have seemed to many that doomsday was approaching.
How did those in power try to prepare the population for what was coming?
What was their message to the people?
♪♪ [ Bells tolling ] Belief in God was central to life in medieval Britain.
Everyone attended church to be guided in all things, both on Earth and spiritually, by their local priest.
With rumors of bodies piled up in the streets in the west of England, in the autumn of 1348, an official Black Death briefing was made from church pulpits.
The king, Edward III, tells the Archbishop of Canterbury to write a letter with instructions for the people.
It's to be read out from the pulpit across the country.
And historians usually called this letter after its first word, which is "terribilis."
This was a mass communication filtered down from king to bishop to priest to peasant.
"Terrible is God towards the sons of men.
He allows plagues to arise, to torment men and drive out their sins.
It is now to be feared that this kingdom is to be oppressed by the pestilence and wretched mortalities which have flared up in other regions."
The message is it's real.
It's coming to get us.
And it's coming because you've all sinned.
This announcement affected everyone.
Breaking any of the Ten Commandments was a sin, but the medieval church was particularly obsessed with fornication.
Olivia Cranmer was fined and would have served penance for having a child out of wedlock.
There were tens of thousands like her across the country.
They were an easy target.
Some clergy were quick to blame plague on immoral women and their choice of dress.
Okay, here we got some very naughty, sexy 14th century ladies who have got slashes in their dresses, revealing their figures and what they've got on underneath.
And this lady here, her robe has got great big holes, enormous arm holes in it, so you can see her shape through it.
And [laughs] the name of these holes is brilliant.
They were known as windows into hell.
♪♪ The Church maintained that only prayer could quell God's wrath and stop the pestilence.
But no amount of praying could halt the progress of this terrible disease.
By November 1348, the plague had spread east across England.
Accounts claim that in Bristol, only 1 in 10 survived.
Plague had struck London and broken out in York.
Everywhere, communities were decimated.
Church cemeteries overflowed.
Across the country, plague pits were dug.
♪♪ This is just the most heartbreaking image.
It's one of the very earliest depictions, it's from 1349, of a plague pit.
Here are bodies being buried.
Look at the grief on the face of this man here with the spade.
And here are crowds of new coffins being brought.
And this would have been the scene all over Britain, all over Europe, where the plague spread.
And to these poor people, it must have felt like the end of the world.
♪♪ Getting a decent burial was a hugely important medieval ritual.
So plague pits were a shocking and sudden change in this society.
With people surrounded by so much death, surely their spiritual beliefs were shaken.
How did the church cope during the crisis?
Medieval historian Dr. Claire Kennan specializes in the impact of the Black Death on faith and the Church in Britain.
So Claire, explain this to me.
People are suffering, they're praying.
The prayer isn't working.
-But they still go on doing it.
Why is that?
-So, in the 14th century, everyone's very concerned with the health of their souls.
And the belief is that when you die, you will inevitably spend some time in purgatory, which really isn't a very nice place.
So what people want to do is really lessen the amount of time they're going to spend there, and they do that through prayer, through acts of repentance, and through giving money to the church.
-So people are saying prayers, not necessarily to save their life, but to have a better death?
-When the Black Death happens, then, how is the church going to respond?
What are they going to do?
Obviously, you've got a clergy who are effectively at the front line of this disease.
They are working with people who are dying from a very, very transmissible illness.
They're getting in very close contact.
They're leaning in to listen to that last whispered confession.
And so we do see a huge number of clergy dying, approximately 50% generally.
But in some places, this is much higher.
And, of course, this leads to extreme shortages.
-So there's a big problem here for the church.
How are they going to solve it?
-The church brings in some really interesting emergency measures, and what I've got here is actually a papal license, which is granted to the archbishop of York so that he can recruit more priests.
And it says, "Because of the mortality from plague, which overshadows your province at this time, not enough priests can be found for the cure and rule souls or to administer the sacraments."
And this is actually a list of novices who are currently being pushed through the system, if you will.
-So it's sort of like sending through the medical students to do the work of doctors.
-Exactly, and what happens is that we actually get quite a lot of complaints about these new priests.
One chronicler even says quite scathingly that they're no better than laymen.
But it's important to remember that this isn't everyone's experience.
And actually what we see during and after the Black Death is people turning to the church, possibly more than before.
So we have lots of people going on pilgrimage to earn what I like to think of as brownie points so that when they do die, they're not in purgatory for too long.
-By New Year of 1349, plague had infected so many in London that the English Parliament was prorogued.
It was shut down.
For a moment, no one, it seems, had oversight of the country as the Black Death ripped through England.
By spring, plague had reached Wales.
The cities of Leicester and Lincoln had been struck.
Estimated casualties in Norwich were horrendous.
Every day, it was getting closer to Walsham.
♪♪ The court rolls suggest plague finally reached the village of Walsham in April 1349.
Among the first to die is William Cranmer the elder, Olivier's grandfather, swiftly followed by Olivia's father and her brother.
Three generations of Cranmers dead in a matter of weeks.
For two months, the Black Death tore through Walsham.
Family after family lost loved ones.
At some point, Olivia's husband, Robert, also succumbs.
But I can find no mention in the court rolls during these terrible months of Olivia dying along with hundreds of other victims in Walsham, younger men, women, and children.
Her name simply isn't mentioned.
It was a new bacterium.
There was no herd immunity.
People didn't really understand how it spread.
But in any case, there was no escape.
If you were a peasant, you could not leave your community without the permission of your lord.
You literally had to stay there, working the land, paying your tax, waiting to see if you'd live or die.
By autumn 1349, the Black Death was raging in Ireland and Northumbria.
Then the Scots invaded England, believing that God had sent the pestilence to punish their English foes.
Unfortunately, they may have taken plague back to Scotland with them, where the disease flared up soon after.
♪♪ ♪♪ In 1350, the Black Death finally died out in the British Isles.
In two years, the pandemic had claimed the lives of up to half the population.
But eyewitness accounts of what life was like in the immediate aftermath of plague are scant.
Those that survived are mainly written by clerics.
And these rare fragments hint at a serious breakdown in society.
Now, this is one of the best of them.
It's by a monk from Rochester.
His name is William Dean, and he's writing in 1350, so only just after the Black Death.
He's still very close to it.
His work's in Latin, but here's the translation.
And this bit says, "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 laborers that a great many lords and people all very well endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without all service and attendants."
With millions of workers dead, I want to find out what effect that had on society once the plague had passed.
Professor John Hatcher is an economic historian at Cambridge specializing in how the Black Death transformed Britain.
John, can you tell me what happens when potentially nearly half the population of a country dies?
-Well, it's a very special country at the time because of how agricultural it is.
The land becomes abundant and people become scarce.
So wages rise because workers are scarce.
And the consequence of that, of course, is the landowners have the threat of a disorderly peasantry demanding far more in pay, but also they're demanding freedom from serfdom.
And just to quote one of the commentators of the period, his world was turned upside down.
-You'd think that it would cause total societal breakdown and chaos, but it doesn't really, does it?
-No, it doesn't.
Why is that?
-If you compare it with modern times, what you've got is people, the bulk of the population, 80%, producing their own food.
-Oh, so they -- -They have to plow the land.
There may be death and destruction all around them.
They have to keep supplying their own land.
You haven't got huge supply lines for the majority of people today.
Society would collapse because you've got so few people who are actually producing their own subsistence.
-But in those days, of course, the situation is very direct.
-And what evidence is there that these people in the labor market were demanding higher wages?
-So, the scarcity of labor makes itself felt immediately.
People can get work anywhere.
They can demand the wages that they want, and there's a splendid description of a plowman plowing in the finery of a noble.
He's been given it.
It's got a few holes in, but nevertheless, there is, with his plow in the mud, wearing the clothes of a nobleman, and the clothes have been handed to him as a bribe to stay in work, to keep working.
So if I were at the peasant level of society, ironically, the Black Death might be good for me if I survived because I'd have more access to more food.
And also, of course, you inherited the property of your family.
Sometimes a large number of family members would die in succession, leaving a single person with the property of five or six people beforehand.
It was a transformation.
-So did this new normal last?
Perhaps, as you might expect, the ruling classes in England at least tried to make sure it didn't by rushing through a new national statute or law.
This great long thing here is a copy of the Statute of Labourers from 1351, so just after the plague.
The translation here tells us what it's all about.
It says, "The king and the nobles have passed the statute against the malice of employees who were idle and who were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages."
It says that they have to take employment for the same wages as before, or else they were going to get imprisoned.
Also says that you're not allowed to leave the town where you work to go and work elsewhere in the summer.
But then they admit that this isn't going to work.
You can go to help with the harvest if you live in Staffordshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Wales, or Scotland.
That is going to be needed to make the country work.
With the ruling classes trying to reinstate the old social order, but with the peasants gaining opportunities for a new life, what does this mean for farming communities like Walsham?
And what happened to Olivia Cranmer?
I know that all the male members of her family are dead.
But Olivia survives.
A single entry in the Walsham court rolls describes her fate.
The lord of the manor wants rent and tax from the Cranmer lands.
So a radical decision is made.
Olivia is listed as heir and granted tenancy of around 40 acres of the Cranmer holdings.
♪♪ Now, I had been thinking of Olivia as a sort of a freak accident.
If this were a newspaper headline, it might say, "Amazing -- Walsham woman does well out of Black Death."
But have a look at this.
You go through the court rolls, there are lots of other examples of women inheriting land from men.
Here we've got Agnes Wodebite and Catherine Dethe, and over here we've got Alice Rampolye, and these women's names were appearing for the first time because for the first time, they're economically relevant.
And I'm wondering if this is happening on a super local level in Walsham, what's happening across the nation?
Is it possible there's evidence for other women coming out of the shadows, if you like, in the wake of the Black Death?
Professor Caroline Barron has done extensive research into opportunities for women in post-plague London.
-Inevitably, there was a great deal of confusion afterwards, but gradually, what you see is that women are emerging, holding down jobs, being apprenticed as girl apprentices to men and to women, taking over workshops and running them as successful enterprises after the Black Death.
-So where a business owner had died, his wife might sort of be forced economically to take it over.
-Yes, and you find after the Black Death that the city expects a widow to continue to train her husband's apprentices, and they encouraged her to run his business.
And in fact, they actually made it possible for a woman who was a widow to become a free woman of London and have the economic privileges that a freeman of London would have had.
Are there specific women that you've been able to research?
-Well, in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, quite interestingly, William Ramsay was the chief mason of the king, the master Mason.
He died in the Black Death, and his daughter, called Agnes, clearly took over the business from him.
We find her running his workshop, and although she was married, she kept her own name, or her father's name, and ran the father's business.
-And she is called Dame Agnes Ramsay in the records.
-They sort of recognize this position that she's achieved.
So it shows you that women could do things.
What's this record you've got here?
Does this tell one of their stories?
This is the indenture of Margaret, the daughter of Richard Bishop of Seaford, near Lewes.
And she's apprenticing herself to a man called John Pritchett, citizen and tollester, which means a toll collector, of London, and burgher.
His wife, a tilde maker, which is a tent maker.
-A tent maker.
She's going to learn to be a tent maker.
-She's going to learn the craft of the said burgher, so it's quite specific.
Although she's apprenticed to the husband and wife, it says she's going to learn the craft of the wife and to be the apprentice.
-Was this a bit like during the World Wars of the 20th century?
The men weren't there and the women had to take over?
It's like the munitions factories in the First World War or Rosie the Riveter in the Second World War in America.
It's all to do with a shortage of population.
-As a new disease, the Black Death's impact was horrific.
And for a short while, the death of half the population saw social order upended.
Britain's peasant class tasted freedom and empowerment, and despite efforts to return things back to pre-plague conditions, many had seen their prospects change fundamentally, none more so than Olivia Cranmer.
She does well enough out of her inherited land to retire with a pension in later life.
She never remarried.
The court rolls now name her Olivia of Cranmer, and it looks like she may have lived into her 60s, a ripe old age for the 14th century.
Plague would return to 14th century Britain.
With each new wave, herd immunity built up, but it took 300 years for Britain's population to get back to pre-pandemic levels, and the psychological impacts of the Black Death lasted generations.
This image is the "Danse Macabre."
It's one of the iconic images of the Black Death, isn't it?
Skeletons enjoying themselves.
It's really striking to me that it dates from well over a century after the Black Death of 1348.
I think it shows the lasting psychological impact of the plague, which kept coming back and back again, and it made people re-evaluate life.
If life was a dance with death, if death could come and take you at any moment, well, then better enjoy life while you can.
-"Lucy Worsley Investigates" is available on Amazon Prime Video.
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