The Black Death
In Pandemic Part 2 we saw how the Justinian Plague opened up the former Roman Colony of Britannia to domination by the more plague resilient Sub-Roman “English” of the East of the Island over the less genetically well adapted Sub-Roman “British” in the West of the Island. Now we shall see the how the Mediaeval Black Death became a blessing in disguise for the Serfs of England who survived it, and was the catalyst that broke the back of Serfdom, freeing up the general English Populace to far greater rights and freedoms than they’d ever known before.
1340s Worse than Mid-Summer Murders: The Lost Villages of England
A few years back Time Detectives became involved in tracing the Family History of a UK TV presenter called Vanessa Cuddeford. An interesting name, with it’s origin being problematic. It appears to be derived from “Cuthbert’s Foird” Cudde being a nickname for Cuthbert, and on this reasoning we would expect it to have been derived from a village called Cuthbert’s Ford or Cuddeford. However such a place does not exist in the UK. A mystery to start with?
The only clue is a mention of a place called Cuddeford in a mediaeval text from 1301 referring to the De Clyfford Family who held lands and knight’s fees in “Cuddeford and Coombe” and , “Awlescombe” villages. None of these places now exist with those names, but “Awliscombe” is a village outside of Honiton in Devon, and it is therefore likely that there is a lost mediaeval village of Cuddeford in the same area. Awliscombe is about a day’s walk from the Exeter area where we first find the Cuddeford family.
It is very likely therefore that the Cuddeford family, were itinerant peasants without their own surname, who left their home village probably around the 1350s in the aftermath of the Black Death, when the population of England was reduced by a third. Whole villages were wiped out by this outbreak of Bubonic Plague., and once a village falls below a certain level there is little or no work and any survivors leave to other communities, generally within a day’s walk, and it is from this flood of local refugees going on a Journée i.e. an old French word for a “the amount of travel covered in a day” (Jour = Day) that we get the English word Journey (which literally meant a day’s travel). This combination of plague, and commercial necessity, emptied many villages across the English countryside, many were abandoned and never recovered, exactly as the Town of Silchester had at the end of the Roman Period (covered in Pandemic Part 2). The village of Cuddeford disappeared perhaps in the space of a few weeks.
1300s A Mongol Khan decides the fate of a West Country Family
The plague had originated in the Black Sea Steppes when the Genoese fortified trading post of Caffa was besieged by the angry Khan of the Mongol “Golden Horde” in punishment for the Italians ignoring his authority. Things took a turn for the worse when the plague erupted in the camp of the besieging Mongols, and in order to avoid both further infection of his own army, and to spread the infection among the Genoese, the Khan had the bodies of plague victims loaded onto his catapults, and hurled over the walls into the city. This is likely to be the first reliably documented case of Biological Warfare in History!
Fleeing from the siege, the plague, and the Wrath of Khan, the Genoese put to see in their remaining galleys and headed off across the Black Sea to head back via Byzantium to Genoa. But the plague was with them, on some ships the entire crews died before reaching home, and large Genoese Galleys manned by blackened corpses drifted like ghost ships for some time on the Black Sea.
The few that did make it back, brought their diseased bodies, and flea infested rats with them to spread the plague in the major trading port of Genoa. Within months it had spread across the Mediterranean, and on to France, where a ship from Bristol was loading up with wine in a port in Gascony, one of the West Country sailors became infected with the plague here, and by the time the ship reached port in the coastal village of Melcombe in Dorset, he was badly sick, and the plague now taking the Pneumonic form spread on the breath, he brought the infection into the Kingdom of England, for good measure the ship sailed on to it’s home port of Bristol, ensuring that the plague would also have an entry point there.
The plague averaged about a mile a day in its spread, the little village of Cuddeford lay immediately in its path from two directions, it would have taken about two months before the first signs of coughing and swellings at the armpits and groin would have manifested themselves in the village, and by the autumn of 1348 the Church graveyard would have been full, and by the winter there would have been corpses in the cottages, village lanes, and fields. There would not have been enough able people left to bury the dead. On average three quarters of people who came into contact with the disease caught it in it’s aggressive form, half of these died. That’s on average, however in small villages with many people marrying locally and effectively having little diversity in the gene pool, it was apparent that whole villages were dying out through lack of resistance.
Every European alive today who had ancestors in Europe at the time of the plague is descended from someone with a degree of natural immunity, all others died out. So who was left? In our case, Vanessa’s ancestors had enough immunity to survive and flee the dying village of Cuddeford for a thresh start elsewhere. We know they did this as their surname bears their heritage, i.e. the place they came from, not where they lived when they acquired the name. There is no point in calling everyone in a village by the village’s name, this only happens when they leave it for somewhere else.
The Cuddeford name, like many in England, therefore, in a very real way, owes its origins to a Mongol Khan’s attack on a Genoese trading outpost in the South of Russia.
1300s -1600s The End of Serfdom
As the workforce in many areas had been wiped out, the small rag-tag band of survivors from the village of Cuddeford, now called “The Cuddefords” named after the village they had fled, suddenly became a commodity in great demand by landowners, . Although against the Law at the time for peasants to leave their home Parish and seek work elsewhere, many peasants fled their home villages and could find work for landowners who offered higher wages to those willing to relocate and risk the law in doing so. Once in the new area, these peasants would have been called by the name of their old village for identification purposes, and this would eventually have become their surname, especially once they were being counted for the Poll Tax in the 14th and 15th centuries and required a surname to be identified for tax purposes.
Although it would take some time and a peasant’s revolt in the 1380s to help achieve it, the Black Death, thanks to the Khan of the Golden Horde, would ensure that peasants in England would no longer be serfs, but would be free men and women. This the Cuddefords would be after walking for a day heading for the City of Exeter, finding their way barred by the panic stricken burghers of the city, afraid to admit more plague victims, they made it to the village of Ide just outside the City of Exeter, where landowners with a more pragmatic mind realised that if they weren’t dead from plague now, then they probably never would be, and were very welcoming of a fresh family to gather the hay and thresh the corn on newly inherited lands. every cloud has a silver lining, for those marked out by genetic luck and ambition. The family would remain in Ide (pictured below) for the next 300 years.
In Pandemic Part 4 we move to more modern occurrences of Plague, Smallpox, and Cholera, through the effects on one Family in England and America.