April 27th, 1349 – London
Well this was a hell of a place and time in which to wake up. Quite literally in fact. The scene I beheld I could never have imagined. The smell hit me first, a putrid stench of rotting something or other. But the noise followed soon after. A general wailing and howling of misery. As I walked, probably with my mouth wide open (which I would soon realize probably wasn’t a great idea), I surveyed the scene. The most obvious thing was the bodies strewn around the streets. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Life was continuing around the bodies, but most of the people were avoiding the corpses by as wide a margin as possible. Some, however, were dealing with the dead. I passed by what can only be described as a mass grave. Bodies were piled on top of each other, up to five deep. Children’s bodies had been stuck into the gaps between adult bodies. And it was only when I focused in on the faces, and the large growths visible on some of the necks, that I realized what was going on. I had arrived slap bang in the middle of the Black Death. Or, as they were calling it, The Great Pestilence.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have run to the countryside as fast as my legs would carry me and awaited my eventual return home from the safety of a very high tree. At the time though, if I gave the risk of disease any thought at all I quickly brushed it aside, secure in the knowledge that, back in my own time, a simple course of antibiotics would take care of it. So instead of evacuating I decided to find out more and began talking to some of the gravediggers, who appeared to be on a break. The plague had arrived in London last autumn, and according to one of the diggers almost 30,000 people were already dead. Another digger, named Arthur, said that a third of London’s population had fled or died. His own wife had recently succumbed and his description of the buboes, the apple-sized balls full of blood and pus that formed on her neck, armpit and groin, were quite the most repulsive thing I’ve ever heard. Apparently she died within three days of her first symptoms, as did almost everyone else who contracted the disease.
After taking my leave of Arthur and his friend, I resumed my stroll. I have to mention the smell again. Holy Crap! Imagine the most exaggerated description I could give of it. Now triple it. There were no pavements, but the bare earth everyone walked on was covered in, well…crap. Human and animal crap, along with rotting food and, as best as I could make out, animal entrails. I had also asked Arthur about the smell. It turns out that before the Black Death hit, he had been a muckraker. Many streets had become impassable in medieval London, so these muckrakers were hired to rake muck. On the plus side, they were paid much better than the average worker, which is good as there was a phenomenal amount of muck to be raked. Apparently it was against the law for people to empty their chamber pots out of windows, but this didn’t stop everyone, to which my nose can attest. And butchers would slaughter their animals within the city, often throwing rotting meat into the river. Muckraking was also dangerous work – Arthur told me that one of his colleagues had asphyxiated from the fumes emitted by the tons of poop they had to clean up each day in London.
I saw a tavern across the street and decided to go in, detouring around several dead animals on the side of the road. Inside I met William. He was leaning against the bar, cradling a large ale. I had decided that nothing was going to pass my lips on this particular trip, but I joined him at the bar and struck up a conversation, while ordering absolutely nothing. William was also a traveler. Though he had perhaps not come quite as far as I, he had seen far more than I would ever wish to. He had been trying to get away from the plague and yet it seemed to be following him as he went. On his way through Venice he heard that 100,000 Venetians had died. In Florence it was around 70,000. He moved on to Paris where another 50,000, or half its population, had perished. Almost more disturbing than hearing about the vast numbers of dead, was hearing about the plague from William’s personal perspective. He told me about his brother, whose wife and children had all fallen sick at the same time. The brother simply left. He gave them one last look, all together in one room dying, and left rather than care for them and inevitably die himself. Apparently this was quite common. There was no doubt at all amongst people that, should they remain in close proximity to an infected loved one, they too would certainly die. And many of them simply walked away.
He also told me about the biggest fruitcakes of all. A couple of times on his journey from Italy to England he came across roving bands of Flagellants. These were people who were convinced that the pestilence was sent by God to punish sinful humans. And so, since they believed that Jesus had suffered for their sins, it was only right that they should suffer now, and this would bring an end to the plague. So they would roam the land, whipping themselves and each other as they went, flaying themselves, sometimes with nails attached to their ropes and whips. People would line the streets and watch as they passed by, and would unfortunately also get sprayed with the blood that flew from the flagellants’ backs. Rather than bringing about a divine cure they were helping transport the disease all over Europe.
After William bade me farewell and went on his way I was suddenly rather tired and lay my head down on the bar briefly. Next thing I knew I was back where I belonged. My stay in medieval London had been a brief one. And although it was incredibly enlightening, I can’t say I’m sad it was so short. I don’t think I’ll be getting that stench out of my nostrils for a month. First thing tomorrow I’m off to the doctor for the strongest course of antibiotics I can get out of him.