Scientists have found that in medieval London, black women of African descent were more likely to die from the plague.
Non-white Londoners were dying in greater numbers due to the “devastating effects” of “pre-modern structural racism”, according to research by the Museum of London and US researchers.
What is now often called the Black Death killed millions of people in Europe and Asia between 1348 and 1350.
In London, where half the population lost their lives, bodies had to be placed in mass graves five meters deep.
The new study examined the remains of 145 people in three plague burials.
It was found that plague burials had significantly higher proportions of people of color and people of black African descent compared to non-plague burials.
Scientists have found that in medieval London, black women of African descent were more likely to die from the plague. The photo shows plague victims buried during the Black Death, which occurred in 1348–1350
Scientists examined data on bone and tooth changes in remains from three cemeteries: East Smithfield Plague Cemetery, St Mary Graces and St Mary Spital.
They found that the likelihood of dying from the plague was highest among people who had already experienced significant hardship, such as the famine that had hit England at the time.
In concluding that the higher mortality rate was the result of racism, scientists pointed out that social and religious divisions were then based on ancestry, 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 study to examine how racism influenced the risk of death during the so-called The Great Plague.
The results of the study will inform exhibitions at the Museum of London’s new base in Smithfield, scheduled to open in 2026.
Scientists are able to determine the origins of individuals based on DNA from bones and teeth.
The chemicals in their teeth also indicate where they grew up.
Experts may also use a forensic anthropology method called macromorphoscopy to examine a person’s facial bones and skull features to determine his or her ancestry.
Dr Redfearn said: “We have no primary written sources from people of color and people of black African descent during the Great Plague of the 14th century, so archaeological research is essential to better understand their lives and experiences.
Research by the Museum of London shows non-white Londoners were dying 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 has played a significant role in people’s health, which is most likely why we are finding more people of color and black African descent in plague burials.”
Dr. Joseph Hefner, professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, said: “This study provides an in-depth look at earlier approaches to population diversity in medieval England based on primary sources.
“Combining bioarchaeological method and theory with forensic anthropology methods allows for a more nuanced analysis of this very important data.”
Professor Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, said: “This research not only expands our understanding of the biosocial factors that influenced mortality risk during medieval plague epidemics, but also shows that there is a deep history of social marginalization shaping health and susceptibility to disease in human populations.”
Dr. Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, claimed that the capital of England during the Middle Ages was “black London”.
She added: “The article presents the field-changing possibilities of new archival research and archaeological work.
What is now often called the Black Death killed millions of people in Europe and Asia between 1348 and 1350. Above: A depiction of 14th century London
“As we reconsider England’s multiracial past, we must address how issues of race and anti-blackness were navigated/negotiated on a daily basis on London’s streets and cultural landscape.”
Skeletons from East Smithfield Cemetery examined as part of a previous study by Dr. Redfearn showed that none of the plague victims of black or mixed heritage had been abused at the time of death.
Experts saw that their bodies were placed in graves with “care and respect.”
However, examination of the remains of one woman of African descent revealed that she suffered from osteoarthritis of the spine and shoulder joint.
Both conditions were caused by repetitive physical work and likely caused pain, Dr. Redfearn and Dr. Hefner said in 2021.
The woman also had arthritis in her jawbone, which meant she could feel pain when eating and speaking.
WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF THE BUBUBIC PUBLIC 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 Death, and the major epidemics that swept through China in the late 19th century.
This disease continues to affect populations around the world.
The Black Death of 1348, which killed half of London’s population in 18 months, and the bodies were placed in mass graves five degrees deep.
When the Great Plague broke out in 1665, a fifth of London’s population died, and the victims were confined to their homes, with a red cross painted on their doors with the words “Lord, have mercy on us.”
The pandemic spread from Europe in the 14th and 19th centuries. It is believed to be caused by fleas that fed on infected rats and then bit people and passed the bacteria on to them.
However, modern experts question the prevailing view that rats cause an incurable disease.
Experts point out that rats were not as common in Northern Europe, which was hit as hard by the plague as the rest of Europe, and the plague spread faster than people could be exposed to their fleas.
Most people would have had their own fleas and lice when the plague reached Europe in 1346 because they bathed much less often.