For many months, it was prominently featured in the headlines. For many months, panic bubbled just beneath the surface. For many months the same word was echoed throughout the world in grave apprehension: Ebola. In the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, the same awe can be detected in the words of the Irish monk who recorded: “Aois Criost, cuicc céd ceathracha a trí. An cuigeadh bliandhain do Diarmait. Pláigh egsamhail choitcheann ar feadh na cruinne, gur sgrios an train bú airmhidnithe don chineadh daonna. The Age of Christ, 543. The fifth year of Diarmaid. There was an extraordinary universal plague through the world, which swept away the noblest third part of the human race.” (O’Donovan, 1966, p. 182-183).
Although Ireland was not touched by this deadly pandemic – unlike the more famous Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century – the Irish were well aware of the disaster coursing through mainland Britain. Irish raiders plundered the west coast of Britain, captured slaves and hostages, and set up colonies in southwest and northwest Wales and southwest Scotland. But during the 540s, they must have stayed clear of the major British population centers – the crumbling walled towns of sub-Roman Britain.
O’Donovan’s footnote in these annals states that “this plague, which was called by the Irish Blefed, is entered in the Annals of Ulster under the year 544, and in the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 546. In most chronological tales it is noticed under the year 543, as having passed from Africa into Europe.” (1966, p. 183).
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make no mention of this instance of the bubonic plague which devastated the isle of Britain, and English textbooks – which tend to gloss over this period – also fail to note it. Yet noted Welsh historian John Davies points out, “Diau y gellir priodoli llwyddiant y Saeson ar ôl 550 yn rhannol i’r nychdod a drawodd y Brythoniaid o ganlyniad i’r pla. Tarddodd hwnnw yn yr Aifft yn 541, a chyraeddasai orllewin Prydain erbyn 549 pan fu farw Maelgwn Fawr ohono. Ymddengys na thrawyd y Saeson gan y pla, canys nid oedd ganddynt hwy, fel yr oedd gan y Brythoniaid, gysylltiadau uniongyrchol â glannau Môr y Canoldir. Credir bellach i bla 549 fod yn gymaint o ergydd â pla enwocach 1349. Trawodd yn arbennig – fel y gwnaeth y pla y mae awgrym amdano ganrif ynghynt – yr hyn oedd yn weddill o’r drefn Rufeinig. Os yw’r ddamcaniaeth fod y Saeson wedi ymatal rhag ymgartrefu yn yr hen ddinasoedd Rhufeinig yn gywir, dichon mai ofn y pla oedd y rheswn pennaf am hynny. (2007, p. 63) The success of the English after 550 may have resulted in part from the inability of the Britons to resist them because they had been enfeebled by the plague. The plague originated in Egypt in 541, it had reached western Britain by 549, when it carried off Maelgwn Fawr. It would appear that it did not attack the English, perhaps because they, unlike the Britons, lacked contacts with the shores of the Mediterranean. The plague of 549 is believed to have been as devastating as the more famous plague of 1349, and there is some evidence of an almost equally deadly pestilence a century earlier. Both scourges seem to have been particularly inimicable to what was left of the Roman order. If there is truth in the assertion that the English avoided the old Roman cities, the explanation may lie in fear of the plague.” (Davies, 2007, 66-67).
Had the plague not struck Britain twice between 400 and 600 AD, the history of the island may have taken a very different course. The various British kingdoms were by no means united against the growing Anglo-Saxon encroachment, but they were headed in that direction by the end of the sixth century. However, what Davies implies is that so much of the British fighting force, along with its leaders, had been decimated that many of the British kingdoms finally fell into disarray and succumbed to Anglo-Saxon takeover and assimilation, leaving the few struggling kingdoms of Wales the last and isolated bastion of resistance. Compared to the relatively quick takeover of Gaul by Germanic invaders after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Britons put up a darn good fight for over two centuries. Would they have been successful in turning back the Anglo-Saxon tide had it not been for the Black Death? If they had, one might hear Welsh spoken travelling between London and Glasgow today – assuming the Normans, Danes, and Vikings were equally repelled.
What really sends a little shiver up the spine is knowing that the bubonic plague is still out there…lurking. Just do a Google search for it and you can easily unearth gruesome images of modern-day plague victims. Like Ebola, it’s a terrifying disease and one not to be forgotten.
For even more creepy things to think about, check out the program The Monsters Inside Me on Animal Planet. But if you’re a hypochondriac, this is clearly not the show for you!
Davies, J. (2007). Hanes Cymru. New York: Penguin Books.
Davies, J. (2007). A History of Wales. New York: Penguin Books.
O’Donovan, J. (1966). Annala Rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616. New York: AMS Press, Inc.
Monsters Inside Me http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/monsters-inside-me/