Soon after entering Italy the plague spread to France, the most populous country in Europe at the time. Despite the fact that it was highly rural, the disease spread rapidly. At one point, 400 people were dying a day in Avignon, the residence of the pope. In one six week period one out of every three cardinals died, and 11,000 people were buried in a single graveyard. In one village with a 1340 population of 1,200, parish records from 1348 show 615 deaths in fourteen weeks, as opposed to 30 over the past ten years. In Paris, 800 people a day were said to have died. New laws were passed to keep panic to a minimum?such as one ordering that only widows may wear black and another so that there was a limit of two grievers to a funeral. Black flags were hung from the church towers of Normandy either in mourning or warning. As more and more villages were left deserted, those who had fled brought the disease to new locations. The pestilence continued on its relentless march to the English Channel.
The Black Death swept into the British Isles across the Channel and up the rivers. By November of 1348 the plague had begun to cause massive social disorder throughout southern England. Think of how terrifying it must have been to live during this time. Religion dictated virtually everything. There was an elaborate bell-ringing ritual for a dead soul to get into heaven: 10 rings for a man, 3 for a woman, and 1 for a child. During the plague, the bells rang constantly across England, pealing morbidly all through the night. Eventually, the bishops ordered that the bells stopped because the constant ringing was terrifying people. The messengers who proclaimed the order were often infected themselves and the plague was spread that way too. There weren?t enough priests to give the last rites to all the dying. After people died, there wasn?t enough space in the consecrated church graveyards to bury them all, and there weren?t enough healthy people left to dig the graves.
In Doomsday Book, Kivrin witnesses a healthy man bury himself alive. The village priest, Father Roche, is at first hesitant about finishing the burial in the consecrated church ground because the deceased committed suicide, but Kivrin explains that he was out of his mind (implying that he was suffering from the septicemic strain).
"She helped Roche straighten the steward's body a little, though he was already stiff. They did not attempt to move him or wrap him in a shroud. Roche laid a black cloth over his face and they took turns shoveling the dirt in on him. The frozen earth clattered like stones.
"Roche did not go to the church for his vestments or the missal. He stood first beside Lefric's grave and then the steward's and said the prayers for the dead. Kivrin, standing beside him, her hands folded, thought, He wasn't in his right mind. He had buried his wife and six children, he had buried almost everyone he knew, and even if he hadn't been feverish, if he had crawled into the grave and waited to freeze to death, the plague had still killed him" (Willis, pgs. 506-507).
The disease traveled through the British Isles in much the same way as it traveled through the rest of Europe. It stopped a Scottish army preparing to attack its ill southern brethren. According to the chronicler Henry Knighton, there were five thousand dead sheep rotting in a pasture, creating such a horrible stench that people were terrified to go near the site for almost a year (Bishop, pg. 308). In one of the most famous quotes from the Black Death, monk John Clyn of Kilkenny recorded:
Sensing the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One and I, as if among the dead, waiting till death do come, have put into writing truthfully what I have heard and verified. And that the writing many not perish with the scribe and the work fail with the laborer, I add parchment to continue it, if by chance anyone may be left in the future, and any child of Adam may escape this pestilence and continue the work thus commenced (Tuchman, pg. 105).
At this point the monk's spidery handwriting ends and is replaced by the hand of another chronicler: "Here it seems that the author died."
The Black Death Part 7: The Rest of Europe