Monday, March 15, 2010

Black Death and Bricks

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in a few successive waves throughout medieval times, claiming over one-third of Europe's population. Of particular interest is the "Black Death" or great plague of London from 1664-1665. This plague took a huge toll on England and on London in particular, as described in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year.

Defoe's book was an attempt to warn the public of the dangers inherent in the plague, a systematic and objective accounting of the plague and its human toll. The author used details to achieve verisimilitude; including specific places, streets, houses and neighborhoods. His was a very public warning.

The great plague of London was followed by another catastrophe for the city, the Great Fire of 1666. This fire began as a small blaze in the bakeshop of Thomas Farynor, on Pudding Lane in London. Soon the fire was out of control, and consumed many structures built of wood and pitch. By the time the fire was over (several days later) around 80% of the city was destroyed, including 430 acres of the city, 13,000 houses, 89 churches and 52 Guild Halls.

As a result of the great fire, London was redesigned and rebuilt. King Charles II established new laws for construction, dictating that all new buildings were to be made of brick. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design some 50 new churches and other structures, including St. Paul's cathedral, all built of masonry. An interesting aside: funds to build St. Paul's cathedral were taken from the funds for St. Peter's in Westminster; the source of the expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The results of the Great Fire were tremendous. First, it killed off much of the rat population -carriers of fleas that spread plague- and brought a definitive end to the great plague of 1664-1665. Secondly it established and greatly strengthened the masonry industry, including brick manufacture and the number of working masons.

Following the Great Fire, when trade ships plied the Atlantic for the New World, their holds were filled with brick as ballast. New houses built in the American settlements were made from this brick; brick which was available largely due to the Great Fire which ended the black plague of London in 1666.

Next time we'll look at this new masonry construction in the American settlements, and how masonry developed in the New World.

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