Black women of African descent were more likely to die of the plague in medieval London, academics have found.
Non-white inhabitants of London died in greater numbers because of the ‘devastating effects’ of ‘premodern structural racism’, according to the research from the Museum of London and academics in the US.
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 half of the population lost their lives, bodies had to be piled five-deep in mass graves.
The new research examined the remains of 145 individuals in three plague burials.
It found there were significantly higher proportions of people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials compared to non-plague burials.
Black women of African descent were more likely to die of the plague in medieval London, academics have found. Pictured, a depiction of plague victims being buried during the Black Death, which struct between 1348 and 1350
The researchers examined data on bone and dental 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 already faced significant hardship, such as the famines that were hitting England at the time.
Concluding that the higher death rates were the result of racism, the academics pointed out that social and religious divisions were then based on origin, skin colour and appearance.
The study was published in the journal Bioarchaeology International and led by Dr Rebecca Redfern, senior curator of archaeology at the Museum of London.
It was the first piece of research to examine how racism influenced a person’s risk of death during what was then known as the Great Pestilence.
The study will inform exhibitions at the Museum of London’s new base in Smithfield, which is set to open in 2026.
Scientists are able to determine individuals’ ancestry based on DNA from bones and teeth.
Chemicals in their teeth also point to where they grew up.
Experts can also use a method of forensic anthropology called macromorphoscopics to examine an individual’s facial bones and features of their skull to determine their ancestry.
Dr Redfearn said: ‘We have no primary written sources from people of colour and those of Black African descent during the Great Pestilence of the 14th century, so archaeological research is essential to understanding more about their lives and experiences.
Non-white inhabitants of London died in greater numbers because of the ‘devastating effects’ of ‘premodern structural racism’, according to the research from the Museum of London
‘As with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, social and economic environment played a significant role in people’s health and this is most likely why we find more people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials.’
Dr Joseph Hefner, associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, said: ‘This research takes the deep dive into previous thinking about population diversity in medieval England based on primary sources.
‘Combining bioarchaeological method & theory with forensic anthropological methods permits 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 add to our knowledge about the biosocial factors that affected risks of mortality during medieval plague epidemics, it also shows that there is a deep history of social marginalization shaping health and vulnerability to disease in human populations.’
Dr Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, claimed that England’s capital in the medieval period was ‘a black London’.
She added: ‘The article outlines field-changing possibilities 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
‘In reconsidering a multiracial English past, we must address how race and anti-Blackness were navigated/negotiated daily on London’s streets and cultural landscape.’
Skeletons from the East Smithfield cemetery that were examined in a previous study carried out by Dr Redfearn found that none of the plague victims with Black African or mixed heritage had been maltreated in death.
The experts could could see that their bodies had been placed in the graves with ‘care and respect.’
However, the examination of the remains of one woman of African descent found that she had osteoarthritis in her spine and a diseased shoulder joint.
Both conditions were caused by manual repetitive labour and are likely to have caused pain, Dr Redfearn and Dr Hefner said in 2021.
The woman also had arthritis in her jaw bone, meaning she could have experienced pain when eating and speaking.
WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF EUROPE’S BUBONIC PLAGUES?
The 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 1800s.
The disease continues to affect populations around the world today.
The Black Death of 1348 famously killed half of the people in London within 18 months, with bodies piled five-deep in mass graves.
When the Great Plague of 1665 hit, a fifth of people in London died, with victims shut in their homes and a red cross painted on the door with the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’.
The pandemic spread from Europe through the 14th and 19th centuries – thought to come from fleas which fed on infected rats before biting humans and passing the bacteria to them.
But modern experts challenge the dominant view that rats caused the incurable disease.
Experts point out that rats were not that common in northern Europe, which was hit equally hard by plague as the rest of Europe, and that the plague spread faster than humans might have been exposed to their fleas.
Most people would have had their own fleas and lice, when the plague arrived in Europe in 1346, because they bathed much less often.