The Black Death
Plague was a common feature of life in the Middle Ages but none was so virulent and devastating as the Black Death which reached York in 1349 and lasted a year.
Surviving documents show that about half the parish priests died. Meanwhile the number of craftsmen and traders made freemen of York increased from a norm of 50 a year to 212 in 1350-51 as new freemen were created to replace the many who died.
After bubonic plague’s first terrible onslaught in 1349, it returned to York in 1361, 1369, 1375, 1378 and 1390. Judged from the poll tax returns, York had a population of perhaps 15,000 by the mid-14th century, making it larger than other regional cities like Bristol, Coventry and Norwich. After the Black Death this figure could have dropped to fewer than 10,000.
York’s appallingly high mortality rate meant it was reliant on the immigrants from the surrounding countryside to survive. Historian Barrie Dobson argues that the terrible death rate helped advance York’s prosperity, at least until the supply of rural immigrants was exhausted.
‘One of the most obvious effects of continued epidemics of plague was to remove the least economically productive sections of the city’s pre-Black Death population and to increase the per capita wealth – and therefore purchasing power – of those who still remained in a much less crowded town,’ he wrote.