English Medieval Hospital Shows Horrors of Black Death
The Black Death was one of the greatest disasters in recorded history. New discoveries in a medieval hospital burial ground are revealing new insights into its impact on rural England. It shows that the countryside suffered as much as urban areas and that religion played a central role during the Black Death.
The plague originated in Asia and spread to Europe by 1347-1349. It is estimated that in England between one third and half the population died. There were further outbreaks of the plague, which was spread by the fleas on rats, until the late 17th century.
New Evidence in Medieval Priory
Many excavations have shown differences in burials, during the Black Death, between urban centers and rural areas. It is known from the records of feudal lords that rural populations were also devasted by the plague. Antiquity reports that “there is an assumption that rural populations with their smaller populations may have been better able to cope with the dead and did not need to resort to mass burials”.
A recent excavation has challenged this notion and has thrown dramatic light on the Black Death in England’s countryside. The University of Sheffield carried out an archaeological investigation of Thornton Abbey, in Lincolnshire, in Northern England.
This was an Augustinian priory that was built in the 12th century. It was a very rich monastic community because of the wool trade, but was closed during the English Reformation.
Ruins of Thornton Abbey were the Black Death mass grave was found. (J R Dawson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Mass Burial of Plague Victims
In 2013, the archaeologists shifted their attention to a mound that was outside the priory’s walls. It was believed that it contained post-medieval structures but instead “the excavation immediately revealed articulated human skeletal remains” according to Antiquity. These remains are from male and female adults and children, but no younger children were found because their remains probably disintegrated in the harsh soil.
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The location of the mound. (University of Sheffield /Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The “arrangement of the skeletons indicates that they were buried in a single event rather than as individual internments” reports Antiquity. The archaeologists were able to carbon date the grave to the 14th century and realized that they had uncovered a medieval mass grave. An analysis of DNA from the teeth of the dead indicated that they had died of the plague.
It appears that the priory was also a hospital during the Black Plague, which was typical of the Middle Ages. Many desperate people probably came to the priory as they had no-where else to go. In medieval England, the few social services available were provided by the church. Those who died in the hospital were buried near a chapel, which was consecrated ground.
Dr. Hugh Willmott, the lead author of the study, exclusively told Ancient Origins “that the church was at the forefront of dealing with the disease”. The clergy had advance warning of the disease, issued alerts, and ministered to the dead.
As a result. many of the priests in Thornton priory died as they tended to people in their hospital. Dr. Willmott informed Ancient Origins that “priests, because of their role, probably had the highest mortality rate of any group”.
Social Breakdown During the Black Death
However, while the dead were buried in a mass grave, they “were prepared and deposited with great care” and most were buried in shrouds according to Antiquity. This indicates the importance of mortuary rituals even during the Black Death. Hugh Willmott, the lead author of the study, exclusively told Ancient Origins that “the dead were treated very respectfully and carefully, just as you’d expect in normal times”.
Those buried in the mass grave had been placed there with great care. (University of Sheffield /Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The mass burial of victims of the plague may indicate a measure of social breakdown in the rural area, which did happen in other parts of Europe. However, Dr. Wilmott states that “in part, it does on a local level, you would expect the dead to normally be buried in the parish churchyard and in individual graves”. However, society continued to function normally despite the deaths and disruption caused by the plague.
A Good Christian Death
Those who fled to the hospital in the Augustinian priory knew that they would not be healed or saved. Given the medical knowledge of the time, the monks could have done nothing but offer solace.
Apart from being comforted the people who went to the hospital would have been seeking a good Christian death and burial there. According to the study’s lead author, they would have been consoled because they believed that “their souls wouldn’t experience difficulty in reaching heaven that they might have if they hadn’t received the proper funerary rites”.
The victims who died from the Black Death at the abbey hospital were given a Christian burial. (University of Sheffield /Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The discovery at the former site of the Thornton Abbey shows that rural communities were forced to adopt similar mortuary practices because of the demands brought about by the plague. The mass grave showed that this part of Lincolnshire was not prepared for the Black Death, despite probable warnings. Dr. Wilmott stated that “the mass grave probably was the result of the developing situation on the ground”.
The burial ground located in the precincts of the Augustinian priory is dramatically showing the horror of the Black Death and its impact on a rural community. It also shows that their experiences were broadly similar to those in urban centers. A full report of the findings is published in Antiquity.
Top image: Mass grave of victims of the Black Death discovered at Thornton Abbey. Source: Sved Oliver / Adobe Stock.
By Ed Whelan