The coronavirus will probably kill far less than 1% of us. Although we have no direct records of the Black Death in Caldbeck it is likely that a third of the people died, as they did throughout Europe, in outbreaks during the fourteenth century.
The Black Death killed indiscriminately without regard to social rank and religion. People lost not only their relatives, friends and neighbours but also their concept of a divine order reflected in church and state and merit acquired through status and rituals. They asked themselves how God could strike down those who claimed to be righteous. The Black Death led to questioning of authority. Over the following centuries the clergy had to give up the claim to exclusive access to God and allow the bible to be translated into English so that everyone could read it. Poorer people regained some of the status and freedoms that they had lost after the Norman Conquest.
Unlike the coronavirus the Black Death did not discriminate by age. Young people of working age were just as much affected as anyone else. This led to a shortage of manual labour –a commodity given no value or recognition in the past. The land and livestock remained the same but there were far fewer people to do the work. This gave greater bargaining power to those who survived. They could no longer be forced to toil for a pittance on farms and estates. Workers were better paid, freed from forced labour and less likely to be evicted from their homes. In some parts of the country there were violent demonstrations and rebellions.
After the Black Death many people may have asked themselves- ‘Did we value our workers in the past and reward them properly?’ Today we see that the most dedicated people in our society are among the most cruelly affected by the coronavirus, especially health and care staff ‘on the front line’. We wonder whether our society has valued and rewarded them properly. We may find ourselves asking the same questions as people did nearly seven centuries ago. Frontline care and health staff will continue to face high levels of risk. The numbers of people willing to take these risks may fall and their labour will become scarce. They should take the chance to insist on better treatment by society.
By Tony Vaux, local historian and author of Caldbeck –A Special Part of Lakeland, Comments welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org