By the end of 1316, people must have been expecting the same terrible weather pattern again in 1317. In fact the weather improved enough to allow a better harvest than the previous two years, and corn prices dropped by 50%. In 1318, harvest totals were back to normal and it seemed that the times of hardship and famine were over – for the majority in England at least. On the northern borders, where the Scots were still raiding, the hardship continued.
The Great Cattle Murrain
The relief was short-lived however, as at Easter in 1319, a new terrible threat landed on Britain’s shores. The county of Essex saw the outbreak of a devastating murrain of cattle, the infectivity and mortality rate of which was unprecedented. It didn’t come out of nowhere: from the information gathered in various chronicles and letters it seems that it may have started in Mongolia around 1314/15, spreading to Bohemia in 1315 before reaching Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries and France in 1318. From there it crossed the Channel into south-east England in 1319 and thence into Scotland (1319/20), Wales (1320) and Ireland (1321). Because of the steady but rapid progression from east to west, and the high mortality seen in herds, Timothy Newfield, in his article ‘A Cattle Panzootic in Early Fourteenth-Century Europe’ argues that this was a previously unknown disease, affecting ‘virgin’ populations (hence no immunity from previous infection). This does indeed seem to be the case as previous murrains involving cattle on the Continent tended to be sporadic and in isolated areas.
As with the Great Famine, the chroniclers of England were quick to record such an event, Johannis de Trokelowe (c. 1280-c.1330) in particular. Speaking of 1319, he says:
In the course of the same year a great pestilential mortality of cattle grew strong through all of England, as no one had seen before. In this pestilence a miraculous thing occurred whereby both the dogs and birds that were feasting on the bodies of the dead cattle swelled up right away and died of infection. After this, there was no person who presumed to taste bovine flesh lest having been infected he might succumb from the carrion. Indeed at Easter the plague began at Essex and continued through the whole year.
Newfield’s article also quotes from an untranscripted and untranslated chronicle from the Cistercian abbey in Newenham in Devon:
There was indeed a great famine and pestilence of humans, but of the poor especially, and [there was] a great, very large and unheard of mortality among cattle, namely oxen, cows and calves, continuing through many years; indeed everywhere they were walking and standing they were lamenting to those people looking at them, roaring as if in tears because of the harsh pain making them anxious on the inside, and thus suddenly falling down they were dying away from that house [presumably the abbey].
From the Newenham Chronicle and quoted in ‘A Cattle Panzootic in Early Fourteenth Century Europe’.
The disease did not just go away either but seemed to persist over the next few years, reducing cattle numbers in most places by an average of at least 60 per cent (although others fared much worse and some better). For example, the royal manor of Clipstone, in 1317, had about 186 cattle and oxen, but by 1320 there were only 64 and half of those were described as being diseased. The herds of the large Winchester estates were also badly hit, losing 588 cattle out of 1088 in a year. Byfleet lost 13 out of 18 cattle (72%) and Gravesend lost all of their stock.
The loss of such numbers of oxen not only affected stocks of meat and milk, it also affected the farmers’ ability to plough and cultivate. In some places horses were used instead, otherwise it was once more a struggle to get crops into the ground. The murrain may also have affected Edward II’s Scottish Campaign of 1322 by reducing the amount of beef available for the moving and foraging army. Although not the only reason why it faltered (difficulty in re-supply by his ships and illness were other factors), it must certainly have had some effect.
What Disease Caused the Murrain?
So what was this mysterious murrain? Attempting to diagnose a disease across time without any DNA samples from bones is always going to be a speculatory exercise, but several historians and virologists have made attempts. From the records it appears to have been a new disease (because of the high mortality factor) and one that spread rapidly and killed quickly (more than one chronicler called it ‘the sudden death’). Considering that medieval England had no notion of biosecurity where disease was concerned, it is almost certain that diseased cattle mixed with healthy cattle by movement to markets or sale and that therefore the disease must have been spread by contact between animals or soil contamination rather than a 3rd party vector (such as a mosquito).
The chroniclers do not, annoyingly, record the symptoms with any great detail, although from the Newenham account they appeared to be suffering from an internal pain before suddenly dropping dead.
One possibility which has gained popularity as a suspect is the disease we now know as rinderpest. Rinderpest, caused by a morbillivirus virus strain, has an incubation period of between three and nine days and can cause up to 90% mortality in virgin populations. It’s symptoms include fever, restlessness, listlessness, nasal secretions, salivation, rapid breathing, thirst and violent diarrhoea. Death occurs in six to twelve days.
Another possible cause (taken from my own research) could have been an infection by some species of clostridium bacteria. One such known to modern farmers is ‘blackleg’ – a fast-acting bacterial disease causing in the first instance fever and then swollen muscle tissue. The bacteria (Clostridium chauvoei) produce gas which builds up in the muscles causing painful ulcers. The beast becomes lames, listeless and finally succumbs with prostrations and tremors. Death can occur in as little as 12 hours and the disease has a mortality rate approaching 100%. In a few cases, the animal may even die without obvious symptoms (if the bacteria have attacked an internal muscle area such as the heart). It spreads through pasture contaminated by the manure of affected cattle; the soil can remain contaminated by the bacterial spores for many years, causing repeat occurrences. It is also interesting to note that most blackleg cases occur during hot and humid periods following a cold winter: these years saw very cold winters and hot summers, which may have helped the continuation of the disease.
Animals that die of blackleg bloat very rapidly and produce a rancid butter aroma. The Bridlington chronicler spoke of cattle having to buried quickly because of the stench. That this was noted at all must mean that it was something that varied from the usual smell of decay that accompanied death. Clostridium bacteria also cause a whole host of similar diseases – e.g. botulism, tetanus, malignant oedema – all causing death. But blackleg, I think, must remain a frontrunner. And of the other cattle diseases that we know of today, no other ones could have caused the same mortalities.
Another puzzle is the cases of dogs and birds dying, bloated after consuming the dead animals as recorded by Trokelowe above. This sounds suspiciously like anthrax. However, anthrax could not have caused the massive and widespread casualties as were seen in 1319/20. Also, although dogs – and some birds – have been known to die from eating anthrax contaminated carcasses, it is very unusual. Indeed, scavenger animals are known to have pretty tough stomachs and immune systems and so are rarely affected by the disease which killed their food source. There are also a few instances of clostridial disease causing deaths in animals eating from an infected carcass, but the bacterial strains involved are different from blackleg, and don’t involve the victim becoming bloated. Maybe what the chronicler was seeing were incidental deaths caused by a secondary mechanism but not necessarily connected to the causative agent of the murrain.
The exact cause and mechanism of the great cattle murrain may never be known. But the effects certainly are. Many estates took years to rebuild their stocks, with the disease often making a return during the next decade. Cultivation was also affected due to the lack of plough beasts. When the next few years saw the return of bad harvests and weather (droughts as well as rain), it became just another terrible link in a chain of catastrophes that drove England to the brink of agricultural crisis. I think there can be no doubt that it also played its part in some of the civil unrest seen during Edward II’s reign although, as far as I know, no-one has investigated this angle as yet. There is no doubt though that the famine and murrains seriously affected England’s economy and agricultural landscape sparking changes that were to finally come to a head nearly twenty years later with the Black Death.
‘A Cattle Panzootic in Early Fourteenth Century Europe’, Timothy P. Newfield, in Agricultural History Review 57 (2009), pp. 155-190
‘The Great Famine and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322’, Ian Kershaw, in Past and Present, No 59 (May 1973), pp.3-50
The Merck Vetinary Manual for Veterinary Professionals, accessed at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/vet/generalized_conditions/clostridial_diseases/blackleg.html
Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed H. Laurd
Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde, Chronica et Annales, ed. Riley