The Black Death from the toggenburg bible 1411

The Black Death was a True Disaster

New path-breaking research not only shows that the Black Death was as calamitous as previously thought, but also opens up for micro-mapping of the events

Disaster recovery: new archaeological evidence for the long-term impact of the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century
By Carenza Lewis
In: Antiquity (2016) Vol. 90, Issue 351, pp. 777-797


Pottery used as proxy for Black death c Carenza Lewis
From: Disaster recovery: new archaeological evidence for the long-term impact of the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century © Carenza Lewis. Antiquity 2016

Path-breaking – yet very simple – new archaeological methods have helped to quantitatively assess the long-term impact of the Black Death in the 14th century. In short, by supervising systematic test-pitting conducted by amateur archaeologists in their private backyards in East Anglia, Carenza Lewis has been able estimate the relative amounts of high medieval to late medieval pottery across East Anglia. The indicates a nearly 50% average drop of activity on the 50 sites studied.

The pottery data derive from 55 currently occupied rural settlements in Eastern England with more than 2000 test-pits excavated. On purpose known deserted medieval villages were avoided. The pottery was recovered from 1m2 test-pit excavations. Being small in extent and quickly completed, the test-pits were all excavated by members of the public under professional supervision of archaeologists. The result is thus a testament to the benefits which can be accrued by involving historically-interested amateurs in research projects of this kind.

Analysis has focused upon pottery since it was extensively used in the study period from the 12th – 16th centuries and can act as a proxy for human presence, writes Carenza Lewis.

To say the least, the results have been staggering. For example averages from four very different settlements show

  • a total drop of number sherds – 76%
  • a total drop in weight of sherds – 60%
  • a total drop of number of pits producing five or more sherds by 64%
  • a total drop of numbers of pits producing two or more sherds by 54%

“Using the latter measure (pits yielding two sherds or more) seems to produce the most conservative results, so it is used in this paper to void over-statement,” writes Carenza Lewis. This fits with the result that 90 % of the excavated villages on average present themselves with a 44.7% drop of pottery-producing pits in the late medieval period.

The question is, of course, whether the decline in the use of pottery is a proxy for a decline in the size of population or whether it testifies to changes in the use of pottery (for instance the wider use of metal pots). This, however, is not the case, argues Carenza Lewis, when she points out that late medieval people in fact used a much wider variety of clay pots and pans than in the earlier high medieval period.

Another factor is that even if the figures are higher than expected, the average drop in sherds corresponds quite well with other estimates of the impact of the Black Death. There is a general consensus that the English population post-Black Death fluctuated on a level 30 – 55% below its earlier pre-Black Death level. “The test-pit data, which point to a decline averaging 45% sit comfortably within this range”, she writes. Perhaps nothing new here, after all?

However, the new results make it possible to imagine a much more precise and detailed map of how and where the plague hit medieval people. More than anything, the new method makes precise information available about the extent to which the size of populations and settlements shrank in the second half of the 14th century. One result has been that Carenza Lewis is able to show that many larger and higher status settlements suffered as badly as the smaller ones. Pre-plague wealth and perhaps better physical conditions might not necessarily have protected local populations. In fact. Some rural market centres suffered about a 55% decline, which is higher than the overall decline of 44.7%.

Such results demonstrate that the new method opens up for an almost unlimited reservoir of new evidence capable of revealing changes in settlement and demography, concludes Carenza Lewis.

On a final, contemporary note, she also pauses to consider the fact that plagues are not something of the past. With the threatening collapse of the system of antibiotics combined with the growing global population, most epidemiologists forecast that future pandemics are unavoidable. The consequences might be as disastrous as those experienced in the later middle ages.


The Black Death. Illumination from the 1411. Source: SMB MS 78 E1 Weltchronik (Toggenburg Bible). In Staatliche Museen, Berlin.