English liberty and the Black Death

The  Peasant’s  Revolt  has to set in  the  context  of the dramatic social changes wrought by the plague. When the Black Death  came  to  England in 1349  it was  a  source  of  both immediate  misery  and  future  opportunity for  those  who  survived. Estimates  of the numbers who died range  from  a quarter  to a half of the population, but whatever the true  proportion  it  had  the  most  dramatic  effect on the  organisation  of  society. The immediate  result  was a  widespread  transfer of property and consolidation of  wealth  as the  lucky survivors inherited. This consolidation aided  people a long way down the social scale, for a man inheriting   no more than a couple of  oxen  and a plough was considerably  better off than a man with none. 

Most  importantly,  the country went from being one  with  an oversupply  of labour – England prior to the Black Death  was probably as well populated as it was in any time before  1700 – to  a country where labour was  scarce. Landowners  were  suddenly  faced with a new economic  world.  They  had either  lost  many of their  workers  through death or were faced  with  serfs  who  were no longer  obedient  and  frequently

absconded, often  lured  to  work  as  free  men  by  other landowners, or  drawn  to the  anonymity  of  the  towns.  Landowners had to employ  free men who demanded  what  were  considered extortionate wages. The Statute of Labourers  of  1351  was a forlorn attempt to  keep things as they had  been  before  the Black Death by restricting wages but, like  all  attempts to buck fundamental economic forces, it failed.  

It is probably not overly sanguine to see English society  in the  late medieval period after the Black Death as  a  golden age for the common man. Not only was labour scarce and land plentiful,  but the great enclosure movement was still in the future  and a very large proportion of the  population  were, to a large extent,  their own masters as they worked  their land.  Even  where labour services were still performed, they were  not crushing,  being commonly 40 days work in  a  year.   Moreover,  agricultural  work  is  seasonal,  especially  the  arable, and  for substantial parts of the year there is  relatively little to do on a farm.

Beyond agriculture, many people had a large  degree  of control  over  their daily lives.  This was the  time  before industrialisation, before the wage-slave and  the  factory. Skilled  craftsmen  were often their own masters, and  even those who worked for a master will have  organised their  own time  because  they worked from their  homes. Indeed,  most   English  men and women today almost certainly have  far  less  control  of their time than the average mediaeval  inhabitant  of England.

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1 Response to English liberty and the Black Death

  1. Ross says:

    Would the same benefits accrue if Politicians were similarly culled to 25 – 50 % ???

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