The Scourging Angel—The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer

The Scourging Angel - The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer

The Black Death. What a topic! That thing taught in history classes at schools. That thing that cursed generation after generation for hundreds of years.

Benedict Gummer’s highly detailed 2010 account takes you through all the horror. Why did we read this? Well, because of this weird old 2020.

Coronavirus doesn’t remotely match the horrific magnitude of the plague. But it’s interesting to note many similarities between 1357’s outbreak and the way the contemporary world took defensive action.

The Scourging Angel by Benedict Gummer

Plague cursed humanity from antiquity until very recent history, with many outbreaks utterly decimating cities and changing the course of history.

But arguably the most famous bout was from 1347-1351. The impact on Europe (notably England and Italy) was so horrific the impact is still felt today, in minor little ways.

There are plenty of books about the plague out there, of course. What makes The Scourging Angel unique is its focus on good old Blighty.

It tours through the nation’s standing before, during, and after the Black Death. As the nation was utterly ravaged by the pandemic.

In May 1348, the plague was already ravaging parts of Europe. And news of a horrendous pestilence was about in England.

Two ships travelled from Gascony for two weeks, arriving in Melcombe Regis, Dorset, in early June of 1348. And that’s when the course of English history changed.

Over the following years, the Black Death wiped out half the nation. With everyone gripped in a cycle of terror, paranoia, and relentless death.

Of course, one of the most shocking aspects of the plague is the nature of it. The horrible way people die.

Although some people did survive their bout with the plague, most people were dead within days. Some went off to bed one random night and were dead by the morning.

The telltale signs of the disease included:

  • The initial stage of fever and chills.
  • Extreme weakness.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Bleeding from the mouth, nose, and/or rectum.
  • General shock.
  • Gangrene (the “black” aspect of the disease).
  • Painful and large buboes appearing on the groin or armpits.

England’s government attempted to quell the spread of the Black Death, but it was unstoppable and blasted across the country rapidly.

It’s this rapid spread that’s led some contemporary doctors to question the idea it was fleas on rats that spread the bacterium Yersinia pestis into humans. They suggest it may have been, instead, spread via human breath.

That would suggest how the disease was able to rip through towns and cities like wildfire.

Benedict Gummer’s account doesn’t go out to prove what caused the disease. He’s here to document what happened to a nation.

His style is very thorough and detailed, which isn’t the most riveting way to go about the issue at times.

But in doing so he at least creates a vivid recreation of life in 1348. And it’s a familiar, but foreign, environment.

Ultimately, the book is a disturbing account of a remarkably disturbing period in human history. The Black Death changed the world forever.

And so, as a read, it’s a fascinatingly detailed insight into an event that devastated England.

Along with the showcase of impressive tenacity to overcome something so appalling and advance onward into the Middle Ages.

Problematic Pandemics

In Roy Porter’s fascinating Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine (2002) he documented the nature of pandemics from antiquity onward.

There have been many of them. Some of them essentially led to the collapse of entire civilizations and empires.

We flag up Answers With Joe again as we love his channel, but his coverage shows just how common pandemics have been throughout human history.

Coronavirus is just the latest one. There will be more in the future, too.

And at the very least during trying times, we can look to the past and see how distant generations handled absolute calamities and take reserve in that.


  1. What I find interesting about the Black Death was the way populations responded with increasingly bizarre behaviours and conspiracy theories. Of course disease mechanisms weren’t understood then and today’s popular response to Covid-19 has been far more rational. Oh, wait a minute, no it hasn’t. Ouch.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, lots of flagellants and religious fervour. The blame game was high as well, bigotry reared its head again.

      But yeah, excellent point. We’ve got the denial lot with coronavirus. Mr. Trump and co. Science, eh? Nonsense!

      Liked by 2 people

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