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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

The Black Death

The Black Death was the popular name given to a virulent outbreak of bubonic plague that swept across most of Europe between 1348 and 1352. It arrived in Britain at Melcombe in Weymouth Bay, Dorset, in June 1348 and its worst effects were felt throughout the land during the following year. The number of people who were killed is not known, but historians think that between a third and a half of the population succumbed. Current estimates, based on detailed research into admittedly patchy sources such as surviving manorial records, suggest that more than forty per cent died. The plague struck again in 1360-2 and 1369 and remained endemic until its final great outbreak in 1665.

The Black Death had enormous social consequences. Some of the families that survived were able to buy or rent more land and to prosper, while humble labourers got higher wages and obtained land of their own. The national population had risen considerably during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries to between four and five million, but after the disaster of the Black Death it took three centuries to recover to this level.

The majority of English people had acquired hereditary surnames before the Black Death. The poorer families in the northern half of the country were the only major group that had not yet accepted the new fashion; they were the ones who added -son to their father's name to form a distinctive type of surname in the second half of the fourteenth century. The deaths of so many people meant that large numbers of surnames withered. Many families that once shared the same surname with others now became the sole bearers of the name. Early references to a surname in different parts of the country from where the name was found later are usually misleading because they did not survive the Black Death.

Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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