People were often hungry, even if food shortages did not amount to famine, and the cool, wet conditions favored the development of fungi and bacteria that caused disease. In the course of the 14th century the average life expectancy in England fell from about 48 to 38 years. This was due only partly to hunger. There was also disease.
Agriculture retreating from marginal land
From time to time entire villages succumbed to ergotism, caused by the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea). Ergot grows on the grains of rye, turning them dark purple, and it was easy for infected grain to contaminate the food supply on which a whole community depended. Ergot produces toxins that survive milling, so the ergot can poison flour. When consumed, it causes convulsions, hallucinations, burning sensations, and gangrene in the fingers and toes that in those days was sometimes fatal. The disease was usually known as St. Anthony's fire, because many of its victims were cared for by a religious order dedicated to St. Anthony.
Even more serious, of course, was bubonic plague—the "Black Death." The plague, known at the time as the Great Pestilence or Great Mortality—the name "Black Death" was first used in 1823—reached the town of Feodosiya (then called Kaffa), in the Crimea, Ukraine, in 1346. It spread rapidly across Europe, reaching southern England in 1348, and by 1350 it was infecting people throughout Scotland. Throughout Europe up to one-third of the entire population died.
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