Deserted Medieval Villages
By the time the plague abated in 1350, a third of Europe had been wiped out. Large, densely populated cities were stricken with massive losses. Before the Black Death, the city of London had a population of 70,000. After 1350, its population reduced with the deaths of 30,000 people. Nor did the countryside, the place of refuge for many people, fare any better. Indeed in some ways, it fared much worse. For while towns and cities, despite their reductions in population survived, many villages saw all of their inhabitants wiped out by the Black Death. Where there were survivors, they were so few that the villages were abandoned altogether.
Archaeology can help shows the scale of this rural devastation. Between 2005-2014, a group of archaeologist began to investigate 55 settlements over six counties in the east of England to identify the effects of the Black Death on the population. Using ordinary, everyday pottery as their benchmark, they discovered on average pottery declined by 45% during and after the plague indicating a corresponding decline in residents. In some areas, the fall was as much as 70% while other places, such as the villages of Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire and Daws Heath in Essex showing no pottery at all.
Many of these villages may have already been declining because of the poor harvests caused by wet summers and the great famine that swept Europe between 1315-17. However, the plague finished them off. Villages like Tilgarsley in Oxfordshire and Anebein in Leicestershire had their occupants wiped out by the Black Death. In other cases, villages were deserted by the survivors because plague had left them so depopulated they could no longer farm the land.
England was not the only country to see a massive loss of its rural settlements. In Germany before 1350, there were about 170,000 rural hamlets and villages. By the time the plague loosened its grip, this number had been reduced by nearly 40,000. In all, eastern and south West Germany lost 20-30% of its villages. The remains of these Wustungen– “lost villages’- can be traced in the landscape today. The story was similar elsewhere with rural Castile suffering a 20% loss of its rural settlements to the Plague.
However, some settlements did recover. In 1350, the manor records for the Hamlet of Quob in Hampshire show that “all and each of the tithing [tenants] died in the pestilence’. However, three years later, the village was resettled- although like Elmesthorpe in Leicestershire, not on the original site. However, the effects of this massive rural depopulation went beyond a decreased in the number of settlements. It changed the way people used the countryside.