107 The Death of Joan

In 1348 a 14 year old royal princess, Joan, set out from Portsmouth to marry Pedro of Castile. Her route went by Bordeaux, and with the massive trousseau she carried – enough to fill an entire ship – she would have expected a comfortable journey. But Joan never arrived. 

107 The Death of Joan

The Black Death

I think there has been so much written about the Black Death that I am not going to repeat it all here. As ever, Wikipedia is as good an account as any, so go the the Black Death page. 

The most famous descriptions of the plague come from Italy. Below is a quote that famously communicates a little part of its horror.

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. … Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. And as soon as ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura called the Fat buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world

Below is a map showing the spread of the plague through Europe

Spread of the Black Death


Joan Plantagenet

Joan PlantagenetJoan was one of the first victims of the plague. As she traveled to Castile to marry Pedro, the king of Castile's son and heir, she caught the plague in Bordeaux and died in a little village called Loremo. When Edward heard, he wrote to the king of Castile: 

"…your Magnificence knows how…we sent our…daughter to Bordeaux, en route for your territories in Spain. But see, with what intense bitterness of heart we have to tell you this, destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched from both of us our dearest daughter, whom we loved best of all, as her virtues demanded"

"No fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are humans too. But we, who have placed our trust in God and our Life between his hands, where he has held it closely through many great dangers, we give thanks to him that one of our own family, free of all stain, whom we have loved with our life, has been sent ahead to Heaven to reign among the choirs of virgins, where she can gladly intercede for our offenses before God Himself"

11 thoughts on “107 The Death of Joan

  1. Congratulations for preparing — and delivering — an engaging, evocative, affective and memorable episode. As a listener to the History of Byzantium, I had the benefit of having recently heard about the plague during Justinian’s reign. You took a step (or more) up, and you succeeded. You moved from humor to pathos with a gentleness that prompts me to listen again: how did he do it? The History of England is YOURS.

  2. This was an amazing episode of your wonderful podcast! I just recently got to this point, hence the late comment. I gasped out loud at the horrible symptoms Joan might have experienced. Well done on making the Black Death seem real, and not just a stream of statistics.

  3. Thanks Emily! That’s certainly the challeneg – it’s quite amazing how hard it is to really imagine the horror of what it must have been like. Robin Pearson’s Plague of Justinian episode was in a way the inspiration; not because he necessarily did it this way, but because he took a different approach (the development lifecycle of yersinia pestis itself. Check out Robin’s podcast if you are interested!

  4. I am still catching up too, and think the Joan episode was amazing. Every episode is great, showcasing David’s skill at what he does, but the storytelling here was, if possible, even better than usual! And “usual” is always great.

  5. I find a grim delight in listening to this episode. Certainly this must be as close to what a proper world wide apocalypse would feel like until the Spanish flu in 1918. One really must take a moment to wonder what your regular working man might have thought. I do not believe I have really ever heard such a visceral recount of the black death, and it really reflects in your recounting what horror everyone must have felt if a princess is might have very well been left to die alone.

    1. Thanks Connor. as I was reading up on the topic, I realsie how easy it is to get swept away in the statistics, and of course its difficult to hear the voice of the ordinary person at this point in history. So I thought Joan’s story helped bring it home a bit.

  6. Well, I’ve been working my way through the podcasts over the last couple of months and have come to this episode with perfect timing it seems.

    Whilst the current situation in England is somewhat bleak, as it is in the world at large, this is a reminder of how much worse things have been in the past.

  7. Hi, loving the podcasts.
    Could you give details on the artist you mentioned where death is watching a party. Orcana..? Even the spelling would allow.me to look it up



    1. Hi Justin, and I’m really sorry – too long ago. I even went back to the script, but could find no menion. Is it in episode 107? did you have a time check?

  8. I loved the way you described poor Joan’s visitors. Do you know if the cause of the “sweating sickness” has been discovered, and if there is a modern equivalent?

    1. Not that I am aware oif; i did read an article where they talked about the way that illnesses appear, disappear and adapt over time, so that there’s no cwertainty we will ever know…

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