top of page

The Plague: If you don't have it, you don't get it...

I want to go to a plague cemetery.

I know, I know, you are shaking your head in amazement.

What is a plague cemetery, and why would I want to go to one?

Well, it's like this. Loyal readers will remember that I've previously talked about my Master's degree in medieval history. My emphasis was on warfare, particularly the Agincourt campaign of the Hundred Years War in 1415. During this trip I got to stand on that field of battle, (now called Azincourt) and it was amazing. However, there is more to the medieval time period than war.

For instance, there was plague.

In the 14th century, the Bubonic plague, or Black Death as it came to be called, ravaged Europe. It's estimated between a half and two-thirds of all people died of it. If you think about it, that would pose a huge health crisis even today, and the Middle Ages was not prepared to deal with it. What happened is that all the dead got shoved into “plague pits,” often with quicklime or some other agent. Over the years, some of the plague pits became regular medieval cemeteries, some continued in that capacity until recently.

I'll be honest, I haven't even thought about medieval cemeteries, except the famous ones, for years, and certainly not in the context of visiting one.

All that changed in Rouen.

It began with the iconic moment – Pete and I were standing at the desk of our hotel and the desk attendant was showing us the map of how to walk into Rouen and what to see there. She casually circled an area (the furthest away, actually) and said, “And this is a medieval cemetery. It was closed but it just opened. It's kind of neat and creepy.”

She had me at medieval.

As we walked around this somewhat medieval town – the one in which Joan of Arc was burned at the stake – I heard someone refer to it as a plague cemetery.

That made sense.

And now my curiosity was definitely piqued.

So we walked. We began with Jeanne d'Arc (the French spelling) and moved on through many of the sights of Rouen. The amazing half-timbered houses are a sight to see, that's for sure, and I felt transported back to earlier times.

We looked at (the outside) of the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Rouen, which French impressionist painter Claude Monet has made famous. We saw the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Ouen and the Palais de Justice. We loved the amazing Tour du Gros-Horloge (Big Clock Tower) situated in the middle of the town, and the Gothic Eglise Saint-Maclou, and it's melodious five bells. Most of all, the medievalist, in me reveled in the Eglise Jeanne d'Arc, a modern-looking monument to this Hundred Years War martyr. It is built on the Place du Vieu Marche, the very site where she was burned to death in 1431.

We missed some wonderful museums (we only really had one day) including the Musee des Beaux Arts, an important art museum, the Musee Les Secq des Tournelles, dedicated to interesting iron work, and the Musee de la Ceramique, a collection of French faience and porcelain.

But we also missed the Aitre Saint-Maclou, the plague cemetery. We walked all around it (we thought it could be hard to distinguish it from the other half-timbered houses that surround it) but it was clearly still being restored. The famous “plague pit” courtyard was not to be seen.

I was so disappointed.

However, later, doing a little research, I realized that there were plague pits all over Europe, including in several cities I knew well, like London and Rome. In fact, there are hundreds of plague pits (and suspected plague pits) in London alone, and in areas that I have absolutely walked (although of course I didn't know what they were at the time).

Black Death, here I come…

bottom of page