Scientists have found that black women of African descent were more likely to die from the plague in medieval London.
Non-white residents of London died in greater numbers from the “devastating effects” of “pre-modern structural racism,” according to a study by the Museum of London and academics in the United States.
What is now often referred to as the “Black Death” killed millions of people across Europe and Asia between 1348 and 1350. In London, where up to half the population lost their lives, bodies had to be piled five by five in mass graves.
The new study does not provide an estimate of how many black people lived in London at the time of the plague in the 14th century. However, previous research suggests that the number may have been small.
The capital’s first recorded black resident was a man named Cornelius, whose name was recorded in 1593. However, one of the researchers involved in the study claimed that the medieval capital of England was “a black London”.
While the plague outbreak killed about 35,000 people in London in the 14th century, the new study examined the remains of just 145 people in three London cemeteries, and only 49 of them died from the disease.
It turned out that plague burials had significantly higher proportions of colored and black African ancestry compared to non-plague burials.
Nine plague victims appeared to be of African descent, while 40 appeared to have white European or Asian ancestry. Among the remains in burials not affected by the plague, there were eight and 88, respectively.
Scientists have found that black women of African descent were more likely to die from the plague in medieval London. Pictured is a depiction of plague victims buried during the Black Death, which lasted between 1348 and 1350
Researchers examined data on bone and tooth changes on remains from three cemeteries: East Smithfield Emergency Plague Cemetery, St. Mary Graces and St. Mary Spital.
They found that the likelihood of dying from the plague was highest among people who were already facing significant hardships, such as the famines that were ravaging England at the time.
The scientists concluded that the higher mortality rates were due to racism, pointing out that social and religious divisions at the time were based on race, skin color and appearance.
The study was published in the journal Bioarchaeology International and was led by Dr. Rebecca Redfern, senior curator of archeology at the Museum of London.
It was the first research to examine how racism affected a person’s risk of death during the so-called Great Pestilence.
The study will inform exhibitions at the Museum of London’s new headquarters in Smithfield, due to open in 2026.
Scientists are able to determine people’s ancestry using DNA from bones and teeth.
Chemicals in their teeth also indicate where they grew up.
Experts can also use a method of forensic anthropology called macromorphoscopy to examine a person’s facial bones and features of their skull to determine their ancestry.
Dr. Rebecca Redfearn, senior curator of archeology at the Museum of London, said: “We have no primary written sources from colored and black African people during the Great Plague in the 14th century, so archaeological research is essential for a better understanding of their lives and their experiences.
A study by the Museum of London found that non-white Londoners died in greater numbers due to the “devastating effects” of “pre-modern structural racism”.
“As with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the social and economic environment played an important role in people’s health and this is most likely why we find more people of color and black African descent in plague burials.”
Dr. Joseph Hefner, associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, said: “This research takes a deep dive into previous thinking about population diversity in medieval England based on primary sources.”
“Combining bioarchaeological methods and theories with forensic anthropological methods allows for a more nuanced analysis of this very important data.”
Professor Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, said: “Not only does this research contribute to our knowledge of the biosocial factors that influenced mortality risk during medieval plague epidemics, it also shows that there is a deep history of social processes . “Marginalization shapes health and susceptibility to disease in the human population.”
Dr. Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, claimed that England’s capital in the Middle Ages was “a black London.”
She added: “The article outlines field-changing opportunities for new archival research and archaeological work.”
What is now often referred to as the “Black Death” killed millions of people across Europe and Asia between 1348 and 1350. Above: A depiction of 14th century London
“As we rethink a multiracial English past, we must address how race and anti-blackness were navigated/negotiated daily on the streets and cultural landscape of London.”
Skeletons from East Smithfield Cemetery included in a previous study by Dr. Redfearn investigations found that none of the plague victims of black African or mixed descent had been ill-treated in death.
The experts could see that their bodies had been placed in the graves with “care and respect.”
However, examination of the remains of a woman of African descent revealed that she had osteoarthritis in the spine and a diseased shoulder joint.
Both conditions were caused by repetitive manual labor and likely caused pain, Drs. Redfearn and Dr. Hefner in 2021.
The woman also had arthritis in her jawbone, meaning she may have had pain while eating and speaking.
What was the cause of the bubonic plague in Europe?
Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was the cause of some of the world’s deadliest pandemics, including the Justinian Plague, the Black Plague, and the major epidemics that swept China in the late 19th century.
The disease continues to affect populations around the world today.
The Black Death of 1348 famously killed half the people of London in 18 months, with bodies piled five times as high in mass graves.
When the Great Plague broke out in 1665, a fifth of the people of London died. The victims were locked in their homes and a red cross with the inscription “Lord, have mercy on us” was placed on the door.
The pandemic spread from Europe in the 14th and 19th centuries, presumably from fleas feeding on infected rats before biting people and passing the bacteria on to them.
However, modern experts are challenging the prevailing view that rats caused the incurable disease.
Experts point out that rats were not as common in northern Europe, which was as ravaged by the plague as the rest of Europe, and that the plague spread faster than people might have been exposed to their fleas.
When the plague broke out in Europe in 1346, most people would have had their own fleas and lice because they bathed much less often.