A painter’s wife makes crosses on doors to mark the houses of those suffering from the plague. A man called John Lorde puts white rods in the hands of the infected ‘to know the syke from the whole.’ Men and women bear the sick to church. Sick people cry out for help.
These evocative accounts of daily life during plague come from the Southampton Book of Fines, a sixteenth-century account book that records money received and spent by the mayor of Southampton. Entries in the Book of Fines are not heavily descriptive but they still provide startlingly vivid details about Southampton’s response to this sixteenth-century health crisis.
A short excerpt from 1563–4 paints a picture of the months-long plague outbreak:
|Item more payed the xviijth daye of september to the paynters wyffe in the east streat for making of crosses at mens dors that were Infectted||xvjd.|
|Item more payed to John Lorde for white roddes to geve them that were Infected in ther handes to know the syke from the whole||xijd|
|Item more payed the first daye of october for syxe men & wymen to keep the syke people and to bare them to church a wyke at xijd. a pece||vjs.|
|Item payd the viijth of october to that same barers & kepers of the syke people a xijd. a pece||vjs|
|Item more payd to the paynters wyffe for crossis made at mens dorrs||xvjd.|
|Item more payd to the barers & kepers the xv daye of october||vjs.|
|Item more payd the xxth daye of october to the berrers and keepers||vijs.|
|Item more payd the xxviijth daye of october to the berrers and keepers at xijd. a pece||vjs.|
|Item more payed the vth day of november to the berers and keepers at xijd. a pece||vjs.|
|Item more payed the xxijth day of november to the barers and keepers at xijd. a pece||vjs.|
|Item more paide the xixth day of november to the berers and keper||vjs.|
|Item more paide the xxviith daye of november to the berers and kepers||vjs.|
|Item more payed the iije day of december to the berers and kepers||vjs.|
|Item more payed the xth daye of december to the berrers and kepers||vjs.|
|Item more payed the xvij day of december to the berers and kepers||vjs.|
|Item mor geven to the syke people that cryed owte for fainy at tymes||vs.|
Cheryl Butler (ed), The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, Vol 2: 1540-1571 (Southampton, 2018), 56–7.
The entries for bearers and keepers continue through the winter to the end of January. Evidence from London and other regions suggests that the spread of disease was particularly virulent in 1563–1564. In Biology of Plagues, Susan Scott and Christopher J. Duncan argue that the 1563 outbreak may have originated in an English garrison in Le Havre, France, and that it likely arrived in England via two distinct ports. Duncan and Scott describe the 1563 outbreak as the ‘worst in the 16th century.’
The exact nature of the 1563 disease is unclear. In his 1970 book A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, J.F.D. Shrewsbury identified the 1563 outbreak as bubonic, meaning that it originated in bacteria that jumped from rats to humans via fleas—the same path of transmission that created the plague that tore through Europe in the fourteenth century.
Scott and Duncan, however, argue that the spread of the 1563 outbreak was more typical of a viral infection or hemorrhagic plague.
The practice of marking houses occurred throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shrewsbury cites the example of Thomas More ordering the mayor of Oxford in 1518 to mark the houses of the plague-infected with ‘wispes’ or straw bundles. White rods also were used as tools for social distancing (for more on sixteenth-century public health measures, see Euan Rogers’ National Archives post about quarantine measures during Tudor epidemics). In the seventeenth century, houses of the infected were marked with red crosses.
Other records from the Book of Fines show Southampton’s response to smaller outbreaks of plagues. In the 1530s a woman called Brigit was paid a half year’s rent for keeping sick people in her house, and in the 1590s the Earl of Worcester’s players were paid one pound (j li.) ‘for that they should not play,’ which may indicate that their performance was scuttled by a disease outbreak.
Records also indicate paying individuals to stay away from the town for fear that they had plague, as in this entry from 1537–8:
Fyrst gevyn to Peter Tayler and his wyf to a voyde the Towne after the dethe of his Childe that Dyed in the plage iijs. iiijd.
These records are not a full-fledged account of the spread of plague in Southampton, but they nevertheless provide captivating glimpses of how the city responded to outbreaks in the sixteenth century, and of the toll of such outbreaks on individual lives.
Alexandra Atiya is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on late-medieval English morality and miracle plays.
 Susan Scott and Christopher J. Duncan, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations (Cambridge, 2001), 159, 168.
 Duncan and Scott, Biology of Plagues, p 159.
 J.F.D. Shrewsbury, Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge, 1970), 1–5, 200.
 Duncan and Scott, Biology of Plagues, p 160.
 Shrewsbury, Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, p 162.
 Evelyn Lord, The Great Plague: A People’s History (New Haven, 2014).
 Cheryl Butler (ed), The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, Volume III, 1572–1594 (Southampton, 2018), xiii, 203.
 Cheryl Butler (ed), The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, Volume I, 1488–1540 (Southampton, 2018), 169.