March 1348 – The King has hit back at charges that he is failing to halt the progress of the plague, blaming “God’s will, blasphemers from the Orient and Genoese merchants” for the spread of the disease.
A spokesman for Edward III said: “No one has worked harder than the Privy Council to stop the pestilence”, pointing out that England had already endured a long war with Scotland and was just embarking on another, this time with France, both of which had diverted resources from public health.
At a briefing for scribes held at Whitehall, the government said that reports of a great mortification that could wipe out a third of the population of Europe were “grossly exaggerated”.
“This is no worse than a mild fever,” said the spokesman, who went on to denounce mischief makers, malcontents and witches for spreading panic among the population. “We’ve asked the Archbishops of York and Canterbury to hold special masses. The situation will be under control by Whitsuntide,” he added.
July 1348 – The Privy Council says it is “working tirelessly” to loosen the plague’s grip on England, amid concerns that the decimation of the serf population is doing incalculable damage to landowners and could bring some of England’s greatest families to the brink of ruin.
The King’s spokesman said that it had taken longer than expected to appease God, “who is clearly a bit angrier than we first thought”. He denied persistent rumours of a plot by Jews, pointing out that Edward I had expelled them all from England in 1290 “as a precaution”.
At the daily Whitehall briefing the King’s physician described symptoms to look out for, including fever, headache, chills, bleeding from mouth, nose and rectum, hardening of lymph nodes and blackening of the extremities. Although these were generally not a cause for concern, he said, “they may cause death in a small majority of cases”.
He added that while traditional treatments including bloodletting and purging may be effective, physicians were exploring a range of new remedies, including rubbing onions, herbs and chopped up snakes (where available) into infected areas.
Every citizen had a duty to take preventive steps, the spokesman said, by retiring to their country estates, carrying a nosegay to ward off infection and cover the smell of putrefaction, and avoiding inns and bawdy houses in densely populated areas.
The rest of the population was urged to stay indoors, particularly when one member of the family became infected. “By staying at home in close proximity for 40 days, either the problem will go away or your entire family will,” said the physician.
The measure is to be reinforced by the slogan “Stay at home, protect the clergy, pray hard”.
The King’s spokesman said that quarantined families would be allowed out for a few minutes each day to bring out their dead and to join Clap for Clergy celebrations each Thursday evening.
He added that the government was confident that the plague would be in retreat by All Hallows with the onset of colder weather.
February 1349 – The Privy Council has announced a range of new measures against the worsening plague situation and has declared a national emergency. Government sources, who did not wish to be named for fear of incurring the King’s displeasure, called the moves “too little, too late”.
Among the new measures, Parliament has finally agreed to quarantine merchant vessels entering English ports but stopped short of closing the country’s borders citing potential damage to the wool trade. The disruption has also temporarily halted the war with France, which some commentators now say could last a hundred years – a claim denounced as “ridiculous” by sources close to the King.
The King’s physician gave a cautious welcome to the popular treatment of flagellation, which “showed promise”, but he warned against the growing number of roving so-called professional flagellants, many of whom are unqualified.
He also denounced the growing number of plague deniers and conspiracy theorists, many of whom argue that the plague has been fabricated by the government to subjugate the peasantry.
The King himself appeared to announce a new slogan “Shrouds, faith, graves” and promised that new plague pits would be opened on common land throughout the country. Responding to criticism that years of neglect of training and recruitment had created a shortage of grave diggers, the King renewed his pledge of a “robust workforce plan to ensure an adequate supply of frontline interment professionals in future”.
The daily briefing concluded with government reassurances that the plague had peaked. “We’ve got this pestilence on the run,” said a spokesman, confirming official estimates that no more than half the population was expected to die.
“Everything could be back to normal as early as St Agatha’s day,” he said, but declined to be drawn on a particular century.
(c) 2021 Julian Patterson