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Pestilence

The living conditions endured by the ‘lesser sort’ and by paupers were basic and made worse by the famines and epidemics which ravaged the country in this period; when plague hit people already weakened by hunger the effects were devastating. The main killer was bubonic plague which was caused by Yersinia pestis, a strain of a bacterium passed on either through the bite of an infected flea (invading the lymph nodes and producing painful swelling or buboes) or by an infected person’s cough or breath, a mode of transmission that rapidly led to lung failure. The fleas were carried by rodents, especially rats, who found thatched timbered houses far more hospitable than those made of brick of stone. Fleas thrived in humid weather of about twenty to twenty-five degrees celsius, so if summer temperatures persisted into a rainy autumn, they could survive for quite a while.

Study of Parish Registers of burials for the first 60 years of the 17th century demonstrates that the parish of East Meon suffered no fewer than seven ‘mortality crises’ in that time, almost certainly caused by epidemics. The worst single year for East Meon burials was in 1625; this is almost certainly the result of bubonic plague. Remarkably, the manorial records make no mention of this crisis, probably because most of the dead were poor people. Another ‘mortalityspike’ took place in 1644, the year in which the Civil War visited East Meon.