The Black Death in a Suffolk Village.
Boxford Society enjoyed a most fascinating talk on Saturday 6th October about the Black Death in Little Cornard. Our speaker, Dr Jonathan Belsey, has spent considerable time studying and translating the near complete village documents for the 14th Century which were kept for the Overlord of Walsingham in Norfolk. (It is rare for such documentation to exist). Over time Dr Belsey has come to know and understand a great deal about certain individuals whose names frequently appear in the documents. He readjusted some of the ideas about medieval life and hierarchies that we might have had from school and painted a picture of an organised community living in a more enlightened social situation than serfdom. It was interesting to note though that for most people diet and living conditions may have resulted in them not feeling too well most of the time. Another interesting fact in setting the scene was that one third of of those renting land in their own name were women.
The population had grown for several centuries during a period of warmer climate and growing sea trade. It never reached these levels again for more than 300 years. The whole nation was ravaged by what became known as the Great Pestilence in 1349 and further epidemics over the centuries that followed. The population in Britain was halved as 75% of those catching the disease died. The Manor Courts spent much time reassigning lands as people died and in some cases ran out of relatives or applicants to pass land on to. The key outcome of all this was that the Feudal system was damaged and workers were a desirable commodity. For the first time they could choose to move to other villages on good farmland like Little Cornard, where their prospects and living standards were better. This movement of people may have been more significant in completely depopulating certain villages than the Plague itself. The people defied the long held traditions of dress and servitude and began to be more independent. The time had come when the aristocracy and the King were unable to keep the people where they wanted them. The effects of the Black Death probably contributed more to this than the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. This intriguing, superbly constructed and illustrated talk by Dr Belsey enlightened us all and left us with much to ponder.
The meeting ended with a brief input by a Society member on what we know about the Black Death in Boxford in the 1600s from the Society Archive. Boxford suffered most in the 1626 epidemic and had the tenth worst plague death rate of Suffolk parishes in the three seventeenth century outbreaks. Sadly we do not have such excellent 14th century documents as Little Cornard to call upon, so we know little about the first epidemic in 1349.