The Remains of the Plague: A Pandemic Story, 1350

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

In the southern English village of Ashwell, a local man sets a ladder against the inside wall of the unfinished church tower, and climbs a few rungs. Work on the new church of Saint Mary the Virgin had stopped suddenly the year before, when the pandemic reached his little community. Today, this man, who is not familiar with Twitter, feels moved to record the terrible state of things on the unfinished tower. Perched on his ladder, he chisels a short message from the heart into the soft, chalky limestone rock. He writes in Latin. Translated loosely, his words mean something like this:

1350 Miserable, wild, violent (year of) 1350

Only a wretched remnant of the people survive to witness*

When the global pandemic of plague overtook Ashwell in 1349, there were no vaccinations to hope for, no public health experts to consult and blame. Perhaps the priest, preaching in his unfinished church, provided comfort. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he died along with his flock. Perhaps he survived, and perhaps it was he who climbed the ladder that day.

I wonder, too, about the people of Ashwell, watching family, friends, and neighbors suffer and die, sometimes within hours, from this hideous new disease. Perhaps they simply prayed. Maybe they set aside Christianity, and turned to ancient English magical techniques, including treating themselves with herbal remedies. Whatever they did, it seems, most of them died anyway.

Since the coronavirus epidemic broke out, I have thought often of the graffiti in Ashwell. I visited the church first as a teenager, and the graffiti is still there today (along with several other 14th century inscriptions)

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Ashwell. Robert Edwards / St. Mary: the parish church of Ashwell / CC BY-SA 2.0

The inscription is pretty high on the inside tower wall. I’m only a shade over 5’, and climbing up to see it is out of the question. Anyway, I get a good view from books, honestly. But in the graffiti's presence, thinking of the man (and it’s pretty safe to say it was a man) who had stood where I stood hundreds of years before, sent chills.

This is a memory I have pulled out, time after time, in the past year. Messy though science and public health can be, I would not wish myself back in 1350, without help or explanation or hope, with nothing to do but record the despair.

*My Latin is almost nonexistent, but I tried to get at the spirit of the thing better than most of the translations I have read. If anyone wants to have a go, or just see photos of all the graffiti, it can be found here. If I got it horribly wrong, Latin scholars, tell me.

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