Black Death Comes to Dunster
What does the Black Death of 1348 tell us about The Oval?
The Oval cottage in Dunster was built in 1366 according to dendro-dating by The Time Team’s Dig Village. This is an interesting year, and it tells us a lot about the people who built it.
In 1348 the plague, or ‘Black Death’ swept across Europe, killing one third of the population. Its impact was totally devastating. In particular, many healthy young people succumbed. This posed a significant problem as the workforce literally died off.
In medieval Dunster, the Black Death changed everything
The medieval economy was based on a ‘serf’ or peasant/landowner relationship – the feudal system.
It basically went like this:
- Landowners relied on serfs to work their land
- Serfs farmed in exchange for a wage, for protection, for shelter and for food when needed
Life was hard for serfs, working the land in all weathers, living in poor accommodation with few belongings. This system was rooted in the value of land. As a result, those who owned it prospered.
Now we’ve lived through a pandemic of our own, we can imagine what it’s like to lose so many people at one time. In 1348, many workers died, and so the status quo changed. Labour became more valuable than land. The fundamental basis of the economy of England – and much of Europe – was turned upside down. And it happened in a few months. After the worst plague outbreak, others followed for the next few years. This is due to the fact that the root cause – fleas carried by the black rat (my favourite Latin word ‘rattus rattus’) was not eradicated.
Whoever built The Oval, they were definitely wealthy
So, what does this tell us about The Oval cottage in Dunster?
In an environment when labour was short and wages were at a premium, building The Oval in 1366 would have taken serious money. And the house is big. It would have been the biggest secular property on West Street – potentially the entire village – at the time.
Originally it was a ‘hall’ house – with one large downstairs room, a large fireplace in the centre, and a room upstairs. All occupants shared the room, with the most important sleeping closest to the fire, and the servants farthest away. If you walk down towards The Foresters Arms pub, you’ll spot Chimney Cottage if you cross over Park Street and carry on. It’s on your left. This cob cottage still has the large chimney stack on the outside, giving a good impression of The Oval’s appearance when it was first built. Upstairs the main bedroom would have been a large sitting room or ‘solar’. Beds were straw pallets. Even the animals lived inside.
Sheep and their wool brought wealth
Wealth in medieval and Tudor Dunster was rooted in sheep. Dunster was the centre of the wool trade in Exmoor. The High Street housed stalls, which eventually became a ‘shambles’ market, sold mutton and other sheep-based products. Wool was traded at the top of the High Street, where the Yarn Market stands today (it wasn’t built until the seventeenth century). The Butter Cross, however, was. Although that said, it can now be found further outside of the village. And it’s so called because this is where villagers bought and sold butter.
I believe the owner of The Oval made his (and it’s likely to be a ‘he’ in this time) money in sheep, most likely wool. Look at the location. A prime spot in the village famed for its wool market. Sited below the castle hill, a few hundred yards from the river and its water mill. Right on a main trading route, taking villagers from the moors over or alongside the River Avill. Then up West Street to the High Street meeting point. He could probably hear the sheep bleating from vantage points in the garden – as you still can today.
Changing eras and changing rooms at The Oval
Over the years the house has changed. At some point in the Georgian era, it succumbed to a major fire. That took out some of the fabric of the building, and we have a ‘new’ chimney stack in the front room. We share this with our neighbours at ‘Made in Dunster’. The twin bedroom is also an extension, nicked from number 19. When that happened is a guess, but I suspect around the same time as the fire.
The Black Death brought absolute devastation to Dunster, its people and its economy. It is intriguing to study The Oval to better understand not only its place in local history, but the telling of it. If you’re a history buff, then this is absolutely the holiday cottage for you! Be sure to visit our blog for other great history related reads, such as the impact of the Victorian era on local engineering innovation. Otherwise, do contact us about availability – we love welcoming history fans to The Oval!