The Black Death: Was the plague a racist?!

The Black Death: Was the plague a racist?!

A museum has claimed black women were more likely to die of the plague in medieval London because of 'premodern structural racism'.

A museum has claimed black women were more likely to die of the plague in medieval London because of 'premodern structural racism'.

What is now often referred to as the Black Death killed millions of people across Europe and Asia between 1348 and 1350.

The first recorded African resident in the capital was a man called Cornelius, who was in London in 1593. However, one of the researchers involved in the study claimed that the medieval capital of England was 'a black London'.

The remains that were studied by researchers from the Museum of London and academics in the US came from three London cemeteries, but only 49 of the sample actually died from the plague.

The research found there were significantly higher proportions of people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials compared to non-plague burials.

Nine plague victims appeared to be of African heritage, while 40 seemed to have white European or Asian ancestry. Among the remains in non-plague burials, the figures were eight and 88 respectively.

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 Rebecca Redfearn, senior curator of archaeology at the Museum of London, 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.

'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.

'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.