Black Death Victims and What They Tell Us About 14th Century England

It has long been understood that the Black Death was spread by flea-carrying rats. However, experts have begun to question how the disease could have spread as rapidly and had as devastating of an effect as it did (Current World Archaeology 2007). As a result, there has been increasing investigation into the environmental and social circumstances that created the conditions for such a disastrous plague.

Figure 1. An illustration of the mass burial at Lincolnshire showing the distribution of bodies, which notably includes many children. Image: University of Sheffield/PA

In 2016, a mass burial pit was discovered in Lincolnshire, England (Figure 1). Teeth recovered from the remains were used to detect DNA of Yersinia pestis, the plague-causing bacterium, which along with carbon dating confirmed that these were Black Death victims (Siddique 2016). Archaeologist Dr. Hugh Willmott explained that this rural community’s mass grave was indicative of how ill-prepared English society was to deal with such a calamity (Siddique 2016).

Discoveries of these mass graves have certainly improved the understanding of how 14th century England dealt with plague victims. But they have shed light on how people of the period lived, too. Archaeology has been used to establish the “epidemiological environment,” looking at housing, population density, and other factors to understand public health (Antoine 2008). This helps to reveal the conditions that would have allowed the disease to spread so rapidly. 

Figure 2. Archaeologists from the Museum of London in the process of excavating a 14th century burial ground in Farringdon, England. Photograph: The Telegraph

In 2013, a mass burial site was discovered in Farringdon, England (Figure 2). Analysis of the site’s skeletons revealed much about the victims’ lives — many suffered from malnutrition and back problems, 16% had rickets, and two-thirds had grown up outside of London (Miller 2014). This helps paint a picture of 14th-century London as a city that attracted people from across Britain, in which many people lived difficult lives.

The study of plague victim remains can also reveal which groups were more likely to suffer from the disease. A study of over 600 bodies from one cemetery indicated that the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions were more likely to succumb to the illness. One study in the Netherlands has even indicated that women were affected more frequently than men (DeWitte and Kowaleski 2017).

It is important to acknowledge the shortcomings of archaeological analysis of these burials. For example, certain areas of burial sites could contain more acidic soil, resulting in a loss of certain remains and altering the distribution of burials. Furthermore, many conditions, including the plague, do not affect bones (Antoine 2008). And when conditions do appear on the skeleton, their cause can be unclear. Bone lesions could indicate a weakened individual that succumbed to the plague, or a healthy individual who survived long enough for lesions to form due to the disease (DeWitte and Kowaleski 2017).

As it stands, archaeology has been unable to fully explain the circumstances leading to and resulting from the Black Death. When taken with a grain of salt, however, these findings can be employed to better understand those conditions, as well as the lives and experiences of the 14th-century English.


Antoine, Daniel.                                                                                                                      2008   The Archaeology of “Plague”. Medical History. (27):101–114. PMID:18575084,        accessed October 5, 2019.

Current World Archaeology                                                                                                    2007   New Light on the Black Death. Current World Archaeology (magazine), March         4, 2007.                                                                                                                     ,                     accessed October 5, 2019

DeWitte, Sharon N. and Kowaleski, Maryanne.                                                            2017   Black Death Bodies. Fragments.                                                                                 DOI:, accessed October 5, 2019.

Miller, Ben                                                                                                                                2014   Skeletons buried beneath square were malnourished London victims of                  Black Death. Culture24, April 2, 2014.                                                                      ,                    accessed October 5, 2019

Siddique, Haroon.                                                                                                                    2016     Black Death burial pit found at site of medieval abbey in Lincolnshire. The              Guardian, November 29, 2016.                                                                                , accessed            October 5, 2019


Figure 1.                             

Figure 2.                                  

See also

This article discusses the facts that have led some to doubt that rats were responsible for the spread of the Black Death, and possible alternate explanations.

This video provides additional information on the archaeological methods employed at the mass burial site discovered at Lincolnshire.

2 thoughts on “Black Death Victims and What They Tell Us About 14th Century England

  1. This is a super cool post! The notion that archaeology can help us learn more about the black plague is fascinating. It makes me wonder, how could archaeology be used in medical fields today?

    • Great question — archaeological findings have frequently benefited the fields of medicine. Even findings related to the Black Death are relevant to modern medicine. This is in part because the disease is still present today (albeit much less common), with an outbreak as recent as 2017 in Madagascar (WHO). By studying the conditions that produced the disease in 14th century Europe and Asia, modern scientists are able to better understand how outbreaks can occur. These findings also contributed to the World Health Organization’s decision to classify the sickness as a “disease of poverty” (K).

      There are also less direct applications for these archaeological findings. For instance, a team of Dutch archaeologists have studied DNA from plague victims with the hope of understanding the prevalence of a genetic variant that increases resistance to HIV. Some have speculated that this variant, known as the CCR5D32 allele, previously boosted resistance to the Black Death, leading to its presence in 10 percent of northern Europeans today. The Dutch team has studied the presence of the genetic variant in Plague victims from a mass grave in Eindhoven, and it is believed that their findings could benefit research into treating HIV/AIDS (Pringle).

      K, Hema
      2016 Medical archaeology: when history helps health. MIMS Today, September 2016.–when-history-helps-health, accessed October 25, 2019

      Pringle, Heather
      2007 Medieval DNA, Modern Medicine. Archaeology Volume(60), accessed October 26, 2019

      World Health Organization
      2017 WHO scales up response to plague in Madagascar, October 1, 2017, accessed October 26, 2019

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