Black Death, The Black Death

Study Shows Why Black Women Faced Greater Risk Of The Black Death

A study found that Black women of African descent faced greater risk of one of the worst pandemics in the 14th century, The Black Death.

In an archaeological study, the Museum of London examined bone and dental changes of individuals who died from one of mankind’s worst pandemics. Data found that Black women of African descent faced greater risks of the Black Death during the 14th century, BBC reports.

The devastation of the Black Death or bubonic plague is believed to have claimed half of the London population. While many studies have examined the history of plagues, the Museum of London’s Race, Population Affinity, and Mortality Risk is reportedly the “first archaeological exploration of race, gender, and social standing influencing a person’s risk of death,” according to BBC.

Obtained by BBC ahead of its publication, the research is based on 145 individuals from East Smithfield emergency plague cemetery, St Mary Graces, and St Mary Spital. Although the sample size is small, according to the research, 18.4% of people in the plague burials appeared to be of African heritage, compared to 8.3% of the nonplague burials. Utilizing a forensic tool, nine plague victims appeared to be of African heritage, while 40 seemed to have white European or Asian ancestry. 

“Medieval England was a diverse population and, like today, issues around people’s heritage [and] wealth have health outcomes,” said Dr Rebecca Redfern, a co-author of the research at the Museum of London, The Guardian reported.

Black women of African descent, on the other hand, saw a greater risk of the medieval plague. For female samples, researchers discovered that “individuals of estimated African population affinity have a significantly higher estimated hazard of dying of plague compared to those with estimated white European affinity.” The research cited that the risks are greater as a result of systemic racism that occurred in the medieval world.

“We emphasize here that variation by race in susceptibility to and hazard of dying from disease reflects the biological and psychosocial effects of racism, which was present in the medieval world (Heng 2018a); race is a social classification and is not based in biological reality, but it does have biological consequences,” the study added.


During the 14th century, the then-Great Pestilence, later called the Black Death, killed more than 25 million people, or at least one-third of Europe’s population. The plague transmission was generally from infected fleas carried by rodents or through ingesting contaminated animals, physical contact with infected victims, or direct inhalation of infectious respiratory droplets. Its bacterial agent (Yersinia pestis) caused symptoms such as fever, fatigue, vomiting, and large swellings. 

Having swept across London from 1348 to 1350, the plague ravaged a city bustling with immigrants from all corners of the world to seek better opportunities. A total of 65,000 immigrants resided in England during that time.


Though the population of Black women in London was not included, the study delved further. Wealthier migrants often had servants who were free or enslaved people originating from Sub-Saharan and northern Africa or Eastern Europe, BBC reported.

 “We have no primary written sources from people of color 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,” Redfern explained, according to the news outlet.

“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 color and those of black African descent in plague burials.”

Furthermore, the research invoked direct comparisons to the coronavirus, where early in the modern pandemic, Black people had a higher risk of infection and were four times more likely to die than white people.

At the height of the pandemic, Guardian research confirmed that high ethnic minority populations in England and Wales tended to have higher mortality rates in the pandemic.

In 2020, Zubaida Haque, the deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, cautioned about the consequences of racial discrimination and racial inequalities. 

“We cannot ignore how important racial discrimination and racial inequalities, for example, in housing, are, even among poorer socio-economic groups,” she previously told The Guardian. “These factors are important but are not taken into account in most statistical modeling of Covid-19 risk factors.”