Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Plague epidemics and the evolution of language in England

Andrew P. K. Wodrich
Washington, DC, United States


Pierart dou Tielt’s illustration of the Black plague in a Belgian town
Pierart dou Tielt’s illustration depicts the mortal toll of the Black Death in a Belgian town circa 1353. Similarly, the plague decimated the population of England, spurring the change from French to English as the country’s dominant spoken language. Via Wikimedia Commons here

Epidemics have had a profound impact on culture across time. The Antonine Plague, a suspected outbreak of smallpox, wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire of the second century. Amongst its many cultural sequelae, this plague caused a renewed sense of spiritualism and religiosity, which may have created an environment that paved the way for the adoption of Christianity a century later.1,2 Perhaps more apparent is the effect of the epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and other European contagions brought by the early explorers to the Americas on the pre-existing American cultures; these diseases did not so much alter the existing native cultures as destroy them.3,4

One of the most striking examples of epidemics shaping culture is the influence of plague on the evolution of language, specifically the English language. Epidemics of plague, the disease caused by Yersinia pestis infection and manifesting in bubonic, pneumonic, or septicemic forms, have erupted seemingly every century over the past two millennia. While not all of these outbreaks of plague have made lasting impressions on the cultures of those affected, two major occurrences of plague in England provide examples of the profound impact epidemics can have on the development of a regional language. The consequences of these plague-driven language changes continue to linger into modern times and have become even more salient as English has slowly become the lingua franca of the modern, interconnected world.


Plague of Justinian

In the fifth century, Britain was a backwater province of the crumbling Roman Empire where a mixture of Latin, Gaulish, and Celtic languages were spoken.5 It was into this milieu that groups of Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes crossed the North Sea, landed on the shores of eastern England, and upset the course of English history permanently.6 The traditional story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England adopted from the histories of Gildas and Bede, although likely apocryphal, suggests that in the year 449 the brothers Hengst and Horsa, initially invited with their warbands from northern Germany by the Celtic king Vortigern to defeat an army of Pict Scots, overstayed their welcome and “became a source of terror to the natives themselves who had invited them.”7,8 Whether true or not, the Anglo-Saxon immigration, violent or otherwise, began in the fifth century and lasted through the seventh century.6 This process of conquest and immigration, which caused a massive cultural shift in the British Isles, was aided by the decimation of the native population by the Plague of Justinian in the mid-sixth century.

Although the etiology of the Plague of Justinian had been debated for centuries, recent genomic analysis has confirmed that this outbreak was caused by Yersinia pestis.9,10 The current consensus on the mortality of the Plague of Justinian accepts that it killed approximately 25% of the population of Europe, with Eastern Europe hardest hit. While the specific mortality rate in England remains uncertain, it is clear that plague ravaged England in the mid-sixth century, killing a significant percentage of the population.11,12

In the aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, the Anglo-Saxon culture and language became increasingly entrenched in England. This was due, in part, to the Anglo-Saxons’ reliance on subsistence farming and insular trade networks.13 When the plague hit, the native British, who depended heavily on trade with the rest of Europe, were disproportionately affected, which left room for the Anglo-Saxons to further colonize the island and spread their language.13 Although in the years after the fall of Rome the influence of Latin in Britain had waned as the prestige and utility of the Roman Empire and its administrative apparatus became obsolete, the Plague of Justinian accelerated this process and helped to install Anglo-Saxon English as the language of the island.5 By the end of the sixth century, Anglo-Saxon English had become the predominant language of the land as evidenced by the near absence of Latin-speaking landowners in Britain.


The Black Death

In 1066, in response to a succession crisis after the death of the childless English king, the Norman duke William the Conqueror invaded England, won a decisive battle at Hastings, and was crowned king of England.14 He subsequently set up a Norman French nobility in England, dividing up the land and noble titles amongst his supporters. These French nobles, despite forming an isolated society within a society by intermarrying with one another and thus keeping the noble lands and noble language French, exerted tremendous influence on English society at-large. Such was their influence that until the arrival of the Black Death, the outbreak of plague that occurred in Europe from 1346-1353, the language of the English kings, the English laws, and the English courts was French.14

When the Black Death—only recently confirmed to have been caused by Yersinia pestis infection—reached England in 1348, it spared neither Englishmen nor Frenchmen, rich nor poor.1,15 Although the exact death toll of the Black Death in Europe, and in England specifically, is a hotly debated topic, conservative estimates place the number of dead at about a quarter of the population.1,16

In the wake of the Black Death, the number of French nobles dwindled; the formerly poor peasant laborers moved up the socioeconomic ladder by filling vacant skilled labor positions; the middle-class merchants and townspeople became the towns’ elite; and the English gentry assumed more land, power, responsibility, and prestige.17 These changes happened quickly, as evidenced by the 1351 Statutes of Labourers which, in order to halt skyrocketing wages, expressly forbad workers be paid more than their pre-plague earnings.18 The effects of the Black Death on the language of England were threefold: firstly, the deaths of large numbers of Frenchmen left an insufficient number of speakers for their language to survive in England; secondly, the English-speaking peasants and lower classes, as they assumed more prominent roles in society, exerted so much influence over the French-language courts of the king that in 1362 Edward III declared that “the Laws should be pleaded in the English Tongue,” because “the French Tongue . . . is unknown in the Realm”; and thirdly, the replacement of the French nobility with upwardly mobile Englishmen increased the demand for literary works in the English vernacular.5,18,19 As evidence of the shift from French to English in the British Isles, by the end of the fourteenth century, the first English-language speech before Parliament was given (1362), the first English-language responses to royal writs of inquiry were made (1389), and most importantly, the first explicit recording of the use of English in an official capacity by a Norman French monarch occurred (1399).19 



In conclusion, plague epidemics have had a profound effect on the evolution of language and have played a role in determining the linguistic composition of modern England. The Plague of Justinian weakened existing communities, mainly of Breton, Celtic, and Roman extraction, allowing for the subsequent military, governmental, and, most importantly, linguistic dominance by invading Germanic tribes. The linguistic wholesale change in England during this period is further evidenced by the lack of Celtic and Latin loanwords into English, save some place names.20 The Black Death in England decimated the noble French stranglehold over the majority English-speaking populace and allowed the vernacular to flourish. Without the Black Death and the increasing demand for literature in the vernacular from the newly ascendant English-speaking nobility, it is highly unlikely that The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, considered the great works of Middle English, would have even been written, at least in their English form.19

Moreover, this phenomenon is not unique to English or England; plague epidemics have had an effect on the evolution of other languages. In the Middle East of the seventh century, the Persian-speaking Sasanian Empire experienced a regionally-focused but destructive plague. The Plague of Sheroe killed the newly ascended king along with a quarter of the population of the capital, which destabilized an already crumbling empire.21 This allowed for the easy demolition of the Sasanian Empire at the hands of the early Islamic caliphs just a few years later.22 These early caliphs, in turn, instituted bureaucratic reforms that changed the language in the region of modern-day Iraq from Middle Persian to Arabic, a change that remains in place to this day.22,23

Ramifications of these plague-induced language shifts are quite pervasive today. Twice, Romance languages predominated in England, but the plagues of yesteryear eliminated those languages from the British Isles and thus shaped the development of modern English. The Plague of Justinian and the Black Death, which affected the populace of England for less than a dozen years, have had ramifications that have lasted centuries. It is relevant to ask whether the current COVID-19 pandemic may have lasting cultural effects throughout the world. With closures of international borders and travel bans instituted across the globe, will English retain its role as the language of international business into the future? Will this pandemic reduce the linguistic diversity of our world by hastening the decline of many endangered languages spoken only by small communities of people? This case study of the effects of plague pandemics on the evolution of English raises important connections to our modern linguistic environment and serves as a reminder of the power that disease has to shape the cultural world.



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ANDREW P.K. WODRICH, BS, is a fourth-year MD/PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Georgetown University and the National Institutes of Health. Beyond his research interests in neurodegenerative diseases and brain aging, he is interested in the history of medicine and disease in medieval Europe.


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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