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A Plague on Both Your Houses

A Plague on Both Your Houses introduces the physician Matthew Bartholomew, whose unorthodox but effective treatment of his patients frequently draws accusations of heresy from his more traditional colleagues. Besides his practice, Bartholomew is teacher of Medicine at Michaelhouse, part of the fledgling University of Cambridge.

In 1348, the inhabitants of Cambridge live under the shadow of a terrible pestilence that has ravaged Europe and is travelling relentlessly eastward towards England. Bartholomew, however, is distracted by the sudden and inexplicable death of the Master of Michaelhouse - a death the University authorities do not want investigated. When three more scholars die in mysterious circumstances, Bartholomew defies the University and begins his own enquiry. His pursuit for the truth leads him into a complex tangle of lies and intrigue that causes him to question the innocence of his closest friends, and even his family.

When the Black Death finally arrives and sweeps through the town, Bartholomew's theories of a dark and sinister conspiracy are swiftly replaced by a desperate struggle for personal survival. But, for some, even the dangers of a horrifying death from the bubonic plague are secondary to gaining wealth and power, and Bartholomew is dragged deeper and deeper into a quagmire of deceit which threatens not only his life, but the continued existence of the University and the future of the town.

Susanna Gregory writes:

A Plague on Both your Houses
is written during the bleak times when a terrible pestilence ravaged the known world. Some of the events and people mentioned in the book are real, and some of it based on descriptions of fourteenth century life taken from contemporary documents and from archaeological evidence. To help you distinguish between fact and fiction, here is the 'historical note' from the end of the book.

Historical note
In 1381 the long-standing dislike between Town and Gown erupted into a riot, and the University chest containing all its documents was seized by angry Cambridge citizens. The documents were burned in the market place and so there is little information about the early history of the University of Cambridge. Living conditions at the young University can be surmised from contemporary accounts from Oxford and from general knowledge of the times. Buildings were cold and dark, and fires were seldom allowed. The day began at Prime and finished when it became too dark for further work. In its early days, the University was very closely linked to the church, and the mendicant friars - the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Austin Canons to name but a few - flocked to Cambridge to study. Most scholars took minor orders to place themselves under church, rather than secular, law. The enormous numbers of these clerics was at the heart of many of the University's problems for at least 250 years.

In the 1300s, the Colleges were not of great importance to the University. Most of the scholars studied in hostels, and it was the hostels that held sway in the University. Peterhouse was the first College, founded in 1284, and another College was not founded until King's Hall in 1317. There followed, in rapid succession, Michaelhouse in 1324, Clare Hall in 1326, Pembroke in 1347 and Gonville Hall in 1348. Trinity Hall was founded in 1350 followed by Corpus Christi two years later. It has been proposed that the founding of the two Colleges following closely on the heels of the Black Death is evidence of the importance of the University in post-plague England. After Corpus Christi, no new colleges were then founded for 84 years, and the hostels continued to be the important voices in the University, despite the royal favour of some of the Colleges. Long before the Suppression, however, the Colleges began to increase in importance, and soon became independent of the University. Today, the Colleges remain independent and it is the them and not the University where the wealth and influence is concentrated.

The University at Stamford, that had developed after a migration of scholars from Oxford after one of many riots, was viciously suppressed in 1334 so that Oxford and Cambridge would not lose their monopoly in the world of learning. In 1265 a university at Northampton was suppressed in a similar way. It is possible that Cambridge, being smaller than Oxford, may have felt insecure, particularly with the threat of the plague.

The plague came to England in August 1348 and ravaged the country for over a year. Many monastic houses lost at least half their number - at Ely and Barnwell half the monks died, including the Prior of Barnwell, while the all the Dominicans died. The population on the Castle side of the river, around the now destroyed All-Saints church, was also decimated. There are no records to say exactly how many people in Cambridge died, but it is likely that the death rate was similar to other settlements in the area and about a third of the population perished. In the years to follow, there was a shortage of clergy, and the social structure of England was changed. The Universities became of vital importance in training more clergy in an attempt to replace some of those that had died.

There are also no records to say how the University dealt with 'the Death', as the people of the time referred to the Black Death. It is likely that teaching was suspended for a while, and it is also likely that many members fled north to try to escape the advance of the plague. It is also true that, usually, most scholars remained in Cambridge for Christmas because travelling was difficult at that time of the year. It is known that King's Hall lost fourteen scholars, but it is not known how many died at Michaelhouse.

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