In these uncertain times we need a topic that can take our minds off our current problems. It’s always a good idea to put things in perspective by considering those who are in a more unfortunate position than we are. That was exactly the position for people in Cornwall 671 years ago to the day.
In 1348 a ship from the Continent had brought the bubonic plague, later known as the Black Death, to Dorset. In the absence of handy vectors such as mass rapid transport facilities, it took several months for the plague to spread along the south coast of the British Isles. But spread it did. Those who claim that Cornwall’s ‘remoteness’ can somehow reduce the effects of Covid-19 are sadly mistaken. Even in 1349 its peripheral location could not prevent the arrival of the plague, probably by boat, by March 1349. The worst wasn’t over until November of that same year.
Reliable data on the spread of the disease was even worse then than now. One measure of its impact was the institution of new clergy to replace those who had died. In the decade prior to 1349 the average annual number of replacements in Cornwall was 4.2. In the year from March 1349, 85 new clergymen were required. This implies a clerical death rate of around 40%, which is quite close to general estimates of the mortality of the Black Death. Cornwall’s population fell from around 90-100,000 in the 1330s to between 50 and 60,000 by 1377. Although not all in one go. The bad news for the current ’herd immunity’ advocates is that there was a second, almost equally bad, outbreak in 1360-62, after which plague became endemic for two to three centuries.
In Cornwall mortality is thought to have been highest around river estuaries on the south coast and in towns, probably reflecting trade links and population densities. Truro in 1378 was described as ‘almost entirely desolated and waste’, while in 1410 it was still ‘much impoverished by pestilence and death’.
Many farms and smallholdings suddenly became vacant. In Moresk manor around Truro in the early 1350s around half had no tenant, while on the poorer, upland soils of Wendron around two thirds of holdings were unoccupied. In the long-term depopulation became the norm for a century and a half. The 45 inhabited sites in Wendron in the early 1330s contracted to just 31 by the late 1400s. Arable land reverted to waste or became pasture, prices plummeted, and tin production collapsed to 20% of its early fourteenth century peak in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.
Yet the economy bounced back surprisingly quickly. Vacant landholdings were snapped up by formerly landless families, tin production had recovered by the 1380s, onerous feudal services tended to disappear, wages rose. For those who survived, the late 1300s and 1400s was a time of opportunity as Cornwall’s economy diversified and grew faster than elsewhere.
On the other hand the plague periodically returned. This period also saw frequent wars and occasional periods of food shortage and famine. Horsemen of the apocalypse tend to travel in groups.