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  /    /  History 3: The Black Death

History 3: The Black Death

Rise to Great Influence

The Dominicans rapidly spread throughout the British Isles. By 1307, just 86 years after their first arrival, 83 Dominican houses had been established in the British Isles (43 in England, 5 in Wales, 11 in Scotland, 24 in Ireland).

The friars became an established part of English society and the Church. In 1272, Robert Kilwardby OP was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and later Cardinal. He was one of 20 friars to serve as bishops in the British Isles in medieval times. Others would serve as confessors, advisors and ambassadors.

A devastating pandemic

In 1348, the bubonic plague known as the Black Death reached the British Isles. The first outbreak ended in 1351, but the plague returned in 1356, 1361 and 1369. The impact of this on the country was huge.

The population was devastated, falling by between one third and a half. Given the urban location of their priories, we can surmise that the Dominican communities were similarly devastated, losing human knowledge and experience, and finding it hard to recruit men in the aftermath.

Economic damage was considerable and caused financial stress for the Friars. However, whereas many villages were wiped out, no priories were closed. Oxford as an international study house could also have brought men in from overseas. Royal patronage even enabled the foundation of England’s sole Dominican nunnery at Dartford, the first members of which arrived from France in 1356/7.

Criticism & controversy

The Dominicans and other orders now came under sustained attack. This hostility stemmed in part from the widespread support enjoyed by the friars and the benefactions they received. The social and economic stress caused by the Black Death must have compounded this conflict through increased competition for benefactions, patronage and vocations. The economic pressure on the nation would also lead to social unrest and the rebellion known to us as ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1381.

Some of the criticisms levelled against the Dominicans at this time were doubtless based on the misbehaviour of individuals. We must remember that this is the period when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, with its satirical depictions of misbehaving clergy. This laxity may in part have arisen when the minimum age for admission to the friars was reduced following the Black Death, in order to boost numbers.

Sr Emma Wynter, a sister of England’s only pre-Reformation Dominican nunnery.

Sr Emma Wynter was a fifteenth-century nun who lived in the nunnery of St Mary and St Margaret, Dartford, the sole Dominican nunnery in pre-Reformation England. The first four nuns arrived from France in 1356 or 1357.

We know almost nothing of her except the very little to be gleaned from three manuscript books in which her name appears. But these can reveal something at least of the spirituality that informed her life and those of other Dominican nuns in her community.

One, which she herself had commissioned, is now known as ‘London, Society of Antiquities, MS 717’. It is a fairly plain book of hours with additional prayers, and has been described by Paul Lee as ‘a chance survival of what must have been the most commonly found kind of book at Dartford Priory’, one used in daily prayer. An inscription in red at the foot of fol. 55 reads: ‘Orate pro anima sororis Emme Wyntyr que fieri fecit istum librum’; which translates to ‘Pray for the soul of Sister Emma Wynter who had this book made’.

This is confirmed by the second book associated with Emma, now known as ‘Downside Abbey MS 26542’. This book is a compilation of devotional treatises, prayers, and sermons in both Latin and English. Written in a neat 15th-century hand, the first and longest item is an English spiritual treatise called The Pricking of Love, a guide to affective meditation and it ends with a tract on virginity suitable for its cloistered readers at Dartford.

The third surviving book, ‘Bodley MS Rawlinson G.59’, is a copy in Latin and English of the Distichs of Cato. The text was widely used in the medieval period for teaching Latin. Whether Sr Emma used it to learn or teach Latin we just don’t know! But, we certainly gain a sense through these three books of the importance that learning and devotional reading had for the Dominican nuns.