'The blow struck the world with immense terror’: Accessing emotional reactions to the Black Death of 1348.
Dance of Death, leaf from "The Nuremberg Chronicle" (c) The Met
Dance of Death, leaf from "The Nuremberg Chronicle" 1493 (c) The Met

The secondary literature on the plague of 1348, often called the Black Death, is full of complications. With these sources often riddled with generalisations, hyperbolic language and literary clichés, which are often acknowledged by historians themselves, a perfect atmosphere is created for sensationalising the plague and how people felt at that time. Popular culture itself carries tropes of romanticism, with ‘plague doctors’ inspiring Halloween costumes and ‘ring o’ roses’ still sung by school children today. But how do we get an authentic understanding of what it felt like to live through the plague?

The RCP’s recently opened Fortitude exhibition aims to share real stories and narratives from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, through their own words. As well as being important for contemporary understanding of the pandemic, work like this plays its part in making history and cementing future interpretations of that period.

So much of how historians understand the plague comes from what was written in monastic chronicles at the time. Nohrl describes how ‘People’s minds were highly excited and strained,’ painting a picture of a society ravaged by confusion and grief. With literacy rates in the 14th century as low as 5% in some areas, it’s little surprise that the only written testimonies we have from that period come from this type of source. This has its limitations though – the story of the plague was told through the eyes of the clergy and written primarily for monastic and university communities, who may not have had the same experience as the average layman. They could, however, describe how people engaged with the church; Butler references the Annalium Hibernae Chronicon stating that ‘some came out of devotion, but many came out of fear of the plague.’

Writing 65 years after the initial outbreak, the Cistercian abbot of Louth Park describes how ‘This blow struck the whole world with immense terror… so great a pestilence has not been seen, or heard, or written about, before this time.’ But how accurate can this be, so long after the period? Does time erase individuals’ true feelings? How people understand the suffering of contemporaries could play into the idea of ‘politics of pity’, where the distance from the subjects (worldwide news was much harder to access in the 14th century) could create sympathy and the opportunity to sensationalise in the Chroniclers themselves.

How we expect people to outwardly perform particular emotions give clues on how people might have felt. ‘And there was in those days death without sorrow, marriage without affection’: these words from the Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuariensis suggest that in some there was a numbness to the death of others. But there is another stumbling block here – measuring past behaviour against current norms is dangerous. Taking the mention of marriage, for example, research suggests that the idea of romantic love in marriage came about in the 18th century, and marriage at the time of the Black Death was often primarily a financial agreement. So how can we deduce that the lack of affection implies fear?

The theme of ‘fear’ runs through almost all monastic chronicles and their contemporary historical writings. Individuals are described as driven by terror, fleeing from the items left by the dead and leaving the sick to fend for themselves. During a time where community support was instilled in society, this has led to some historians concluding there was a sudden lack of morals following the outbreak.

It’s estimated that 40–60% of the population of Europe were killed by this plague. With so many deaths, the workforce across Britain changed. Chronicles from the late 14th century in both Historia Roffensis (Rochester) and Knighton Chronicle (Leicester) describe workers using the plague as a bargaining tool for higher wages and demonstrating an unwillingness to take orders from above. Perhaps that shows that in the survivors there was a sense of resilience and hope to push for fairer living conditions.

The difficulty of differentiating an individual’s feelings from the prevalent ‘group emotion’ is often noted in the work of the Society for the History of Emotions (SHE), which takes a multidisciplinary approach to analysing how people may have felt. We will never truly understand how each individual felt, but we can come to understand how the general population reacted to the plague.

Following COVID-19, many people tried to draw comparisons between the pandemic and historical plagues from the past. This has its difficulties due to the limitations discussed earlier, along with the added sensitivity of those writing third-hand narratives or curating evidence having experienced the pandemic themselves and being likely to have some emotional biases. This is why work like Fortitude is so important in sharing real voices from those that experience the pandemic first hand.


  • Henry Knighton, Augustinian canon of Leicester, 1390s.
  • Historia Roffensis, the chronic of the cathedral priory of Rochester, 1350.
  • Cistercian abbey of Louth Park, 1413.
  • The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, 1326–1358
  • Benedictow, Oleg. The Black Death 1346 – 1353. The complete history. Oleg The Boydell Press 2004, Woodbridge.
  • Bourke, Joanna. Fear – a cultural history (Virago Press, 2005), 42.
  • Butler, R (ed), 'Annalium Hibernae Chronicon', Irish Archaeological Society, 1849, pp 35-7.
  • Des Ormeaux , Anna Louise. The Black Death and its Effect on 14th and 15th Century Art. 2007.
  • Green, Monica. 'Editor’s Introduction to Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death'. The Medieval Globe 1 (2014): vii
  • Martín-Moruno, Dolores, and Beatriz Pichel (eds), 'Emotional Bodies: The Historical Performativity of Emotions' (Champaign, IL, 2019; online edn, Illinois Scholarship Online, 17 Sept. 2020), https://doi.org/10.5622/illinois/9780252042898.001.0001, accessed 3 Oct. 2023.
  • Norhl,  Johannes. The Black Death – A chronicle of the plague compiled from contemporary sources. London, 1961.
  • Tait, James (ed) 'Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuariensis 1346-1367', Manchester, 1914, pp. 106-10.

Emily Russell, taken from research for her BA (Hons) dissertation in History at the University of York.


Read our weekly library, archive and museum blog to learn more about the RCP’s collections, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Library, Archive and Museum