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New research finds Black women of African descent more likely to die of medieval plague


New research finds Black women of African descent more likely to die of medieval plague

New research carried out on human remains at the Museum of London has found that Black women of African descent were more likely to die of the medieval plague in London. Often referred to today as the ‘Black Death’, the outbreak of 1348-1350, was widely known at the time as the Great Pestilence or Great Mortality.

The study, published by Bioarchaeology International, was undertaken by Dr Rebecca Redfern (Senior Curator of Archaeology, Museum of London), Professor Sharon DeWitte (Biological Anthropologist, University of Colorado), Dr Joseph Hefner (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University), and Dr Dorothy Kim (Assistant Professor of English, Brandeis University). It is the first archaeological exploration showing how racism influenced a person’s risk of death during the Great Pestilence and will inform galleries at the museum’s new home in Smithfield, opening in 2026.

The research, which looked at data on bone and dental changes, is based on 145 individuals from three cemeteries: East Smithfield emergency plague cemetery, St Mary Graces and St Mary Spital. It found:

  • Significantly higher proportions of people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials compared to non-plague burials
  • Black women of African descent were significantly more likely to die from the plague than other people

The likelihood of dying from the Great Pestilence was highest amongst those who already faced significant hardship, including exposure to serious famine events that hit England during this time. The research concluded that higher death rates amongst people of colour and those of Black African descent was a result of the “devastating effects” of “premodern structural racism” in the medieval world. Social and religious divisions based on origin, skin colour and appearance were present in both medieval England and Europe.

Commenting on the research, Dr Rebecca Redfern, Senior Curator of Archaeology at 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.”

Professor Sharon DeWitte, Biological Anthropologist, 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 Joseph Hefner, Associate Professor of Anthropology, 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.”

Dr Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English, Brandeis University, said: “Chaucer's 14th-century medieval London was a Black London. 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.”

The Great Pestilence of 1347-1353 was a deadly infectious disease that swept across Asia and Europe, killing millions of people. Modern scientific research has identified this as a plague pandemic but in the mid-1300s people had no idea what the disease was or how to stop it. It arrived in London in the autumn of 1348 and lasted until the spring of 1350. An estimated 35,000 Londoners died, representing over half the population. So many people died that emergency cemeteries had to be set up to bury them. Such a loss of life left deep scars on society and the city’s population did not recover until the 1500s. Plague returned many times in the following centuries.

The disease was carried by rodents who had infected fleas, or transmitted by droplet-infection, such as coughing. Sufferers would experience a range of symptoms including fever, fatigue, vomiting and buboes (large swellings). Earlier ancient DNA studies on the individuals from the cemeteries of East Smithfield and St Mary Graces identified the bacteria Yersina pestis as the cause of the Great Pestilence.

Opening in Smithfield as the London Museum in 2026, the museum’s new cavernous underground galleries will tell thousands of years of human history in the city. Visitors will be able to explore London’s past, including an exhibit focused on the Great Pestilence. Here people can investigate what research on human remains can tell us about the pandemic and the lives of medieval Londoners.


Images available here.

The research paper Race, Population Affinity, and Mortality Risk during the Second Plague Pandemic in Fourteenth-Century London, England is online here.

Press Enquiries:

Museum of London: [email protected] / 020 7814 5502

About the Museum of London

The Museum of London tells the ever-changing story of this great world city and its people, from 450,000 BC to the present day. Our galleries, exhibitions, displays and activities seek to inspire a passion for London and provide a sense of the vibrancy that makes the city such a unique place.

A fixture on London’s cultural scene since first opening in 1976, the museum is moving house. It has now closed doors at its London Wall site in preparation for its relocation to a new home at Smithfield, where it will occupy historic market buildings and open up to millions more visitors. The new museum will reopen in 2026 under a new name: the London Museum.

The Museum of London Docklands remains open Monday - Sunday 10am – 5pm and is FREE to all. You can explore the Museum of London with collections online – home to 90,000 objects with more being added regularly

More information about the relocation of the Museum of London to Smithfield can be viewed here.