Black Death European Economic History

Description

Topic #38: Case Study: Why the Black Death affect two regions of Europe differently 
1. Title and author (that’s you) at the top of the page 1  
2. Abstract (again): next on the page 1
3. The Main Body of Your paper: 4500 words. Starting below the abstract on page 1. Amaze
your reading audience with what you have learned and how you have analyzed the subject. You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea to break your paper down into sections with each section title in bold font. Your last section should be the Conclusion section. 
You have to use this source in the paper:
Hatcher, J. (1994). England in the Aftermath of the Black Death. Past & Present, 144, 3–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/651142England in the Aftermath of the Black Death
Author(s): John Hatcher
Source: Past & Present , Aug., 1994, No. 144 (Aug., 1994), pp. 3-35
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/651142
REFERENCES
Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/651142?seq=1&cid=pdfreference#references_tab_contents
You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Terms and Conditions of Use


and Oxford University Press are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend
access to Past & Present
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE
BLACK DEATH*
The place of the Black Death among the most dramatic e
in history has long been secure. The demise at a single s
the mid-fourteenth century of at least a third of the pop
of the known world has understandably exercised a p
fascination for both the popular and the scholarly imagi
Yet the influence historians have attributed to this catastr
the shaping of the course of subsequent social and ec
development has long since fallen far short of what migh
been expected from the scale of the deaths it caused.
Frederic Seebohm, reacting to what he saw as the neglec
history that was unconnected with the deeds of kings and
made a forceful case for the Black Death having precipit
great social revolution”.’ In the following year Thorold R
though disputing with Seebohm the precise nature of its
agreed that the Black Death introduced “a complete revo
in the occupation of the land”. Although Rogers in the co
pursuing his monumental researches on the medieval eco
over the next quarter-century was to concede progressivel
weight to evolutionary influences, he continued to ascri
much significance to what was in essence a fortuitous occ
to be in conformity with prevailing historical opinio
authoritative surveys of Cunningham, Ashley and Dento
lished in the 1880s, while not denying the severity of th
term shock of the Black Death, stressed the long-term i
upon the course of England’s late medieval development
by a variety of political and constitutional forces as wel
independent changes in social and economic structures, m
which either pre-dated the arrival of plague or were unco
* I am grateful to Barrie Dobson and Mark Bailey for offering helpful a
an early draft of this paper.
‘F. Seebohm, “The Black Death and its Place in English History”, p
Fortnightly Rev., ii (1865).
2J. E. T. Rogers, “England before and after the Black Death”, Fortnigh
iii (1866). A review of Rogers’s equivocal stance on the impact of the Black
contained in N. Hybel, Crisis or Change: The Concept of Crisis in the Light of
Structural Reorganisation in Late Medieval England (Aarhus, 1989), pp. 9-1
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
4
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
with it. And when in 1900 T. W. Page attempted to portray the
Black Death as a turning-point in the history of labour services
and villeinage, he met with the instant disapproval of P.
Vinogradoff, who warned sternly that “We must really not raise
the plague to the dignity of a constant economic force”.
Vinogradoff judged that the Black Death “undoubtedly accentu-
ated the tendencies in course of development, but it neither
originated them nor has it materially affected their course”.3
In 1918 Eileen Power, informed and emboldened by the
recently published researches of Gray on the chronology of the
commutation of labour services, Petit-Dutaillis on the origins of
the Peasants’ Revolt, and Levett on the impact of the Black
Death on the estates of the see of Winchester, continued the
debunking with enthusiasm. She held the great pestilence to be
nothing more than a gentle accelerator of pre-existing tendencies,
and wrote disparagingly that the world was already changing in
the early fourteenth century “and that into this changing world
the Black Death came and gave it a slight push in the direction
along which it was already travelling”. Power further proclaimed
that “there are no cataclysms in medieval economic history”, and
concluded by insisting that the revolutionary theory was unlikely
ever to be reinstated.4 Levett ended her study of the Winchester
estates with the speculation that it “was more seriously affected
by William of Wykeham’s magnificent projects than by that
traditional parent of all economic development, the Black
Death”.5
Such roundly depreciatory pronouncements were warmly welcomed by political and constitutional historians who were loath
3 W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce (Cambridge, 1882;
rev. and extended, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1890); W. J. Ashley, An Introduction to English
Economic History and Theory, 2 vols. (London, 1888-93), i; W. Denton, England in
the Fifteenth Century, ed. C. A. Denton (London, 1888); P. Vinogradoff, review of
T. W. Page, The End of Villainage in England (New York, 1900), in Eng. Hist. Rev.,
xv (1900), pp. 774-81.
4 E. Power, “The Effects of the Black Death on Rural Organisation in England”,
History, new ser., iii (1918); H. L. Gray, “The Commutation of Villein Services in
England before the Black Death”, Eng. Hist. Rev., xxix (1914); C. Petit-Dutaillis,
introduction to A. Reville, Le soulevement des travailleurs d’Angleterre en 1381 (Paris,
1898); C. Petit-Dutaillis, “Causes and General Characteristics of the Rising of 1381”,
in his Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs’ Constitutional History, 3 vols.
(Manchester, 1909-27), ii; A. E. Levett, “The Black Death on the Estates of the See
of Winchester”, in P. Vinogradoff (ed.), Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History,
9 vols. (Oxford, 1909-27), v.
5 Levett, “Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester”, p. 160.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
5
to grant much significance to a demographic phenomen
more importantly they reinforced the predilections of th
pathetic to the rapidly mounting influence of the social
on economic and social history, and on the medieval per
particular. Commencing in the 1930s, M. M. Postan in
series of searing articles created a powerful explanatory
out of a mass of local and temporal diversity, and by the
tion of economic theory and the concepts of Malthus and
placed the relationship between population and resource
heart of economic change.6 Postan’s analytical framewor
cised considerable sway over his contemporaries, and ev
who rejected it, most notably historians of Marxist per
likewise placed human behaviour at the centre of a r
account of social and economic development, and made m
directly responsible for its own destiny.7 Under the po
intellectual leadership of Postan, the experience of t
Middle Ages was interpreted as the inevitable consequ
developments which had taken place in the earlier m
period. In a self-reciprocating fashion, the remorseless g
population in the centuries prior to c.1300 resulted in t
exploitation of natural resources to such a degree that ex
was destined to be followed by an extended period of cr
contraction, and this second phase began in earnest a half
or more before the arrival of plague. In this way the Bla
was duly confirmed in its role as a mere accelerator of e
ously engineered tendencies which had long been und
Since Marxists rejected attempts to award a dominant
demographic fluctuations in the shaping of social and e
development, with a rare consonance of views the d
independence and significance to the Black Death app
so-called demographic determinists and Marxists alike. I
has continued to appeal to anyone seeking to construct “r
explanations of historical development. Devastating w
mortality caused by a mutation in a micro-organism car
fleas on the backs of rodents living at high altitudes in the r
6 A number of these articles were republished in M. M. Postan, Essays on
Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy (Cambridge, 19
7 See, for example, E. Kosminsky, “The Evolution of Feudal Rent in Eng
the XIth to the XVth Centuries”, Past and Present, no. 7 (Apr. 1957); R
“Peasant Movements in England before 1381”, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd ser., i
R. H. Hilton, “Y-eut-il une crise generale de la feodalite?”, Annales E. S.C.,
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
6
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
steppes of Asia are not easily fitted into a dialectical process. To
admit a prime role to autonomous disease is to threaten to reduce
the aspiring scientific historian to a mere chronicler of the random
and the bizarre.
It is now widely believed that English society and economy
were already in the throes of major change, commonly called a
“crisis”, before the onset of plague,8 and there is an equivalent
consensus that the Black Death did relatively little to speed the
process thereafter.9 Despite the enormous death-rate many
aspects of life have been shown to have reverted swiftly and
powerfully towards normality: within a few years of 1350 the
land of England was almost fully re-occupied, and at rents which
seemingly stood comparison with former years; instead of collapsing, demesne farming experienced an “Indian summer” and serfdom survived; the incomes of landlords were sustained at
surprisingly high levels; and there was a pronounced buoyancy
in many spheres of urban, commercial and industrial life. Nor do
the lower orders appear to have thrived to the extent that might
have been predicted. We are told that in the generation after the
first plague the gap between richer and poorer members of village
communities widened as the upper and middle strata prospered
disproportionately, primarily because the great majority of the
numerically dominant smallholders, cottagers and landless lacked
the resources to take full advantage of the opportunities for
advancement which were created.10 There is also general agree-
ment, based upon sturdy statistical foundations, that any
improvements which took place in the material welfare of wageearners were decidedly muted.
A prodigious body of data now exists on the movement of
money wages in the later Middle Ages, based upon the evidence
of hundreds of records drawn from many parts of the country
and a wide variety of estates, and there is also every reason to be
secure in our knowledge of the price movements of the commodit-
ies which formed the great bulk of the consumption habits of
8 B. M. S. Campbell (ed.), Before the Black Death: Studies in the “Crisis” of the
Early Fourteenth Century (Manchester, 1991).
9 Summarized in A. R. Bridbury, “The Black Death”, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd ser.,
xxvi(1973).
10 Z. Razi, Life, Marriage and Death in a Medieval Parish: Economy, Society and
Demography in Halesowen, 1270-1400 (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 147-50; L. R. Poos, A
Rural Society after the Black Death: Essex, 1350-1525 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 16-20,
226.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
7
TABLE
AGRICULTURAL WORKER’S PIECE-RATES: UNITS OF WORK NEEDED
TO BUY ONE QUARTER OF WHEAT AND ONE QUARTER OF BARLEY*
Cost of Threshing and Reaping and Mowing and
grain (d.) winnowing binding spreading
Pay per Units Pay per Units Pay per Units
unit (d.) needed unit (d.) needed unit (d.) needed
1290s 133.7- 4.55 29.4 4.90 27.3 4.65 28.7
1300s 111.7 4.73 23.6 5.45 20.5 4.97 22.5
1310s 163.4 4.82 33.9 6.65 24.6 5.46 29.9
1320s 139.0 5.27 26.4 6.40 21.7 5.82 23.9
1330s 109.9 5.32 20.7 6.16 17.8 5.56 19.8
1340s 101.4 5.38 18.8 5.87 17.3 4.95 20.5
1350s 146.8 6.00 24.5 7.22 20.3 6.32 23.2
1360s 167.8 6.46 26.0 8.17 20.5 6.96 24.1
1370s 136.8 7.56 18.1 9.22 14.8 7.58 18.0
1380s 105.2 7.77 13.5 9.14 11.5 7.60 13.8
*Source: D. L. Farmer, “Crop Yields, Price
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Hist., new
common people. The conclusion to w
point is that although money wages
1348-9 so too did the prices of alm
result was that, in a period of seem
the real rewards of labourers, serv
only marginally if at all, with the p
ons of London where money wages
ally strongly. 1 A. R. Bridbury has s
by pointing out that “the statistics
indicate by the slightest movement
the relative scarcities of land and la
of the century”.12 The latest and m
pilation and presentation of prices, w
published by D. L. Farmer (see Ta
1 The fact that recorded money wages and
commodities moved in concert for approximat
Death was established by Thorold Rogers and c
Beveridge. The implications of these data for l
successive generations of scholars: see, for exa
Evidence of Declining Population in the Later
ser., ii (1949-50), p. 226; J. L. Bolton, The M
(London, 1980), p. 72; H. E. Hallam (ed.), Th
Wales, ii, 1042-1350 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 778
Later Middle Ages: Social Changes in England,
Poos, Rural Society, p. 209. For London wages
Wages in the Manorial Era”, Econ. Hist. Rev.,
12 Bridbury, “Black Death”, p. 578.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
8
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
power of labour actually falling in the twenty-five years after the
Black Death.13
There have been few dissenters from the conclusion that the
Black Death, and the two succeeding epidemics of 1361-2 and
1369, resulted in only modest improvements in the standards of
living of labourers and artisans, despite the difficulty of producing
satisfactory explanations of why this should have been so.
Attempting to fabricate plausible hypotheses to explain why a
vital commodity for which the demand was inelastic did not rise
substantially in price when its supply shifted abruptly from
abundance to scarcity has taxed the ingenuity of a succession of
historians. It has been suggested that the failure of labour to
benefit significantly from the massive reduction in numbers might
have been due to the extreme overpopulation prevailing before
1348, to the existence of “a submerged and pullulating throng”
who filled the places of those who died without seriously dis-
turbing existing social and economic relationships.14 But the
plausibility of such an explanation is severely undermined by
abundant indications of population decline in the opening decades
of the fourteenth century and the lack of corroborative evidence
of sufficiently gross surpluses of people in the 1330s and 1340s.15
Another explanation might lie in mortality during the Black Death
being far less severe than has hitherto been assumed. But the
tenor of many recent calculations, based upon better records and
improved methods, has generally been to raise rather than lower
13 Presented in full in D. L. Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500”, in E. Miller
(ed.), Agrarian History of England and Wales, iii, 1348-1500 (Cambridge, 1991),
pp. 431-525. Similar conclusions have been reached on the basis of an independent analysis of price and wage data by J. H. Munro (“Industrial Transformations
in the North-West European Textile Trades, c.1290-c.1340: Economic Progress or
Economic Crisis?”, in Campbell (ed.), Before the Black Death, p. 141; “The Behaviour
of Wages during Deflation in Late Medieval England and the Low Countries”, paper
submitted to the Ninth International Economic History Congress, Berne, 1986).
14 Bridbury, “Black Death”, pp. 590-1; Dyer, Standards of Living, pp. 218-19.
Despite repeated re-readings I am still not confident of having mastered all the
subtleties of Bridbury’s arguments; but see also A. R. Bridbury, review of J. Hatcher,
Plague, Population and the English Economy, 1348-1530 (London, 1977), in Population
Studies, xxxi (1977), pp. 606-7.
15 For recent discussions of likely pre-plague population movements, see the essays
by B. H. Harvey and R. M. Smith in Campbell (ed.), Before the Black Death; E.
Miller and J. Hatcher, Medieval England: Towns, Commerce and Crafts, 1086-1348
(forthcoming 1995), ch. 7.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
9
estimates of death-rates in the country at large.’6 Altern
the potential gains of peasants and labourers might hav
effectively reined back by social and institutional restrai
it has been posited that the Ordinance and Statutes of La
may for a time at least have constituted a viable incomes
that manorial courts were successful in coercing village
accepting the status quo ante, and that the lower orders
their demands because they were unable to overcome the
tional deference to social superiors.17
Instead of expending yet more energy in seeking to r
this paradox, it would appear more profitable to examine
the paradox itself has substance. The thrust of this artic
fore is to question whether the gains of labourers and smallh
before the price falls set in from the late 1370s were in
limited as it has long been conventional to believe. Centra
examination will be an investigation of the ability of the
prices and wages, which have been collected from m
records, to reflect accurately the movements which took
real wages and disposable incomes in the three decades aft
It will be noted below that when one turns to encompass
range of evidence of how employers and employees behav
of the rewards which were given and received, it become
diately apparent that conventional historical wisdom runs
not only to a priori reasoning, but to the opinions and b
people who lived through the aftermath of the Black Dea
16 Hatcher, Plague, Population and the English Economy, pp. 21-5, survey
ence then available. Subsequently published estimates of death-rates b
robust data include: over 50 per cent on Durham priory manors (T. Lomas
East Durham: Late Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries”, in P. D. A. Ha
The Peasant Land Market in Medieval England (Oxford, 1984), pp. 259
Lomas, “The Black Death in County Durham”, Jl Medieval Hist., xv (198
40-46 per cent on Halesowen manor, Worcs. (Razi, Life, Marriage a
pp. 101-9); 50-60 per cent in Coltishall, Norfolk (B. M. S. Campbell, “P
Pressure, Inheritance and the Land Market in a Fourteenth-Centur
Community”, in R. M. Smith (ed.), Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle (Cambrid
p. 96); 49 per cent on Cottenham manor, Cambs. (J. Ravensdale, “Populati
and the Transfer of Customary Land on a Cambridgeshire Manor in the F
Century”, in Smith (ed.), Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle, pp. 197-9); 45 p
mid-Essex communities (Poos, Rural Society, p. 107); 45-55 per cent in
le-Willows, Suffolk (R. Lock, “The Black Death in Walsham-le-Willows
Suffolk Inst. Archaeology and Hist., xxxvii (1989-92), pp. 316-17).
17 Dyer, Standards of Living, p. 219. It might also be noted that th
economics as interpreted by Snooks do not permit falling population t
labour scarcity and hence in rising real wages: G. D. Snooks, Economics wit
A Science Blind to the Forces of Historical Change (Basingstoke, 1993), pp
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
10
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
I
The survivors of the Great Plague of 1348-9 were in no doubt
that the fortunes and demeanour of the lower orders had been
transformed. In the experience of the upper strata of society, the
trauma of successive waves of devastating pestilence was followed
by the prolonged discomfort inflicted by obstreperous tenants
and truculent workmen who, conscious of the prospects for betterment which the massive mortality had placed within their
grasp, would not be coerced into placidly accepting their timehonoured subservient roles as the meek providers of ample rents
and cheap labour. Inevitably, many attempts were made to
impede the progress of the labouring and peasant classes.
Employers had a vested interest in keeping wages down, and
landlords fought to stop the erosion of the incomes which they
derived from their tenantry and of the control which they exercised over their lives. The rewards of labour, and the position
which the common people enjoyed in the economic and social
hierarchy, were matters of paramount concern to each and every
age, and were far too important to be left to the interplay of
market forces. Consequently, throughout the Middle Ages a bat-
tery of religious, ideological and legal weaponry was directed
towards the perpetuation and justification of the lowly economic
and social status of labour, and towards reconciling and rationalizing the incongruities which existed between the significance of
manual toil for the well-being of the community at large and the
meagre rewards received by those who performed it. When population collapse threatened to turn traditional relationships upside
down, a reaction by government and landlords seeking to preserve
as much as possible of the old regime was destined. In the eyes
of the elite, the forces of supply and demand might make labour
scarce but they could not be permitted to make it expensive.
The king and his council were convinced, well before the Black
Death had run its course, that the nation was facing a catastrophic
shortage of manpower, gravely exacerbated by the refusal of
survivors to work unless they were granted excessive rewards,
and with remarkable speed the Ordinance of Labourers was
enacted in June 1349.18 It was expressly directed against those
18 The Ordinance is printed in Latin in B. H. Putnam, The Enforcement of the
Statutes of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Death, 1349-1359 (New
York, 1908), pp. 8*-12*; and in English in English Economic History: Select Documents,
ed. A. E. Bland, P. A. Brown and R. H. Tawney (London, 1914), pp. 164-7.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
11
workmen who, “seeing the necessity of lords and the sca
servants, will not serve unless they receive excessive wag
the Statute of Labourers was passed two years later becau
servants completely disregard the said Ordinance in the
of their own ease and greed and . . . refuse their ser
magnates and others unless they have payments of f
money two or three times as great as they used to take
said twentieth year of Edward III [1346-7] and earlier
prime intention of this and subsequent legislation was to
the harmful effects of labour shortage by increasing it
and forcing down its price. To this end parliament s
impose maximum wages in cash and kind; to punish bot
who gave and those who received excessive rates; to com
able-bodied whose landholdings or income levels fell bel
prescribed minima to accept work on the specified terms
ing annual contracts when they were offered; and to lim
petition between employers by granting lords a first op
the labour of their tenants and requiring workers to re
their native villages.
In direct contradiction to the statistical findings of his
the chroniclers of the post-plague years wrote repeated
bitterly of the high cost of workmen, their arrogance, their
indulgence in leisure and, of course, their contempt for t
laws. According to Knighton, after the Ordinance was p
the workmen were “so arrogant and obstinate that they
heed the king’s mandate, but if anyone wanted to have
had to give them what they asked” or lose his crops, wh
the time that the statute was passed “they served their
worse from day to day than they had done previously”.
Reading claimed that the debasement of the coinage in
to still higher wages, so that labourers worked less and w
Complaints and parliamentary petitions from employ
cerning the impotence of the sanctions which they had
disposal, including most notably the Statute of Labourers
throughout the period under scrutiny, and they provide
ling evidence of a belief in the persistence of the scarci
19 25 Edw. III, 2, cc. 1-7: printed in The Statutes of the Realm, ed. A. Lu
11 vols. in 12 (London, 1810-28), i, pp. 311-13.
20 Chronicon Henrici Knighton, ed. J. R. Lumby, 2 vols. (Rolls Series
1889-95), ii, p. 74; S. L. Waugh, England in the Reign of Edward III (C
1991), pp. 91, 109-10.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
12
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
high cost of labour.21 The concerns of commentators and
employers, heightened by fears for the very survival of the tradi-
tional social hierarchy, are brought into stark relief in the burgeoning literature of the later fourteenth century. The “estates”
and “complaint” literature of the period is a well-respected
source for the fears and prejudices of elite society, but the numer-
ous portraits it contains of those whose allotted role was to toil
in order to provide their superiors with sustenance have been
accorded scant weight by historians. Whereas a previous generation of scholars was inclined to neglect observations on the conduct and lifestyles of the lower orders as relatively unimportant
for their studies, the present generation has largely chosen to
look elsewhere for its evidence, consciously shunning sources
which are judged to be vitiated by bias.22 G. R. Owst in 1933
felt justified, when writing a volume of almost six hundred pages
devoted to sermons, in proclaiming that “A page or two will
enable us to dismiss the one remaining class of society”; in 1991
D. L. Farmer, who has assiduously addressed the fortunes of the
peasants and labourers, explicitly favoured the evidence of manorial accounts over the testimony of “critics of social change and
disorder, like the poet John Gower or the monastic chronicler
Henry of Knighton”.23
At first glance it is undeniably tempting to favour business
accounts, which seemingly provide a factual record of the
payments which were made to employees, over the polemical
assertions of writers who dealt bewilderingly by turns with obser-
vation, castigation and the road to salvation. Yet does the comfort
bestowed by quantification rest upon secure foundations, and is
the testimony of contemporaries so riddled with bias that it is
rendered worthless to the historian?
21 Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, throws much light on these
matters. In 1368 smaller landlords petitioned parliament drawing attention to the
damage they were suffering from the shortage and high cost of labour: N. Saul,
Knights and Squires: The Gloucestershire Gentry in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford,
1981), p. 238.
22 R. H. Hilton is one of the few exceptions; see, for example, his use of literature
in “Ideology and Social Order in Late Medieval England”, in R. H. Hilton, Class
Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (London, 1985),
pp. 246-52, and “Rent and Capital Formation in Feudal Society”, in R. H. Hilton,
The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1975), pp. 174-214.
23 G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England: A Neglected Chapter in
the History of English Letters and of the English People (Cambridge, 1933), p. 361;
Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500”, p. 443.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
13
II
A long-term drift in favour of statistical evidence on the part of
historians, and the warnings voiced by influential literary critics
of the “relativism” and “positivism” which can result from
excessive attention to the historical context of texts, have not been
conducive to the utilization of literature for information about the
age in which it was composed. Yet later fourteenth-century literary
texts can be made to yield a wealth of insights for the historian of
society. Although much medieval literature has often been correctly diagnosed as presenting a gallery of traditional stereotypes
rather than a mirror of contemporary society, the works of a
number of later fourteenth-century writers resonate with the
social, religious and political realities of this tumultuous age.24
Although leading writers with scant exception clung to a traditional hierarchical ideology, many were aware that their audiences
were widening and deepening, and that in these perilous times it
was appropriate for their writings to assume a more direct social
function, with description, instruction and exhortation taking pre-
cedence over entertainment. Prominent among the images and
messages urgently conveyed is the stark contrast evident in the
world about them between the lamentable failings of present society and the eternal ideal of a harmonious and prosperous community in which the members of each of the three estates selflessly
fulfilled their divinely ordained roles. In keeping with the tone
and content of many contemporary sermons, each of the three
estates is subjected to fierce criticism for falling far short of the
immemorial standards required of it, but nowhere is the immediacy of the reporting more evident than when the failings of ser-
vants, labourers and peasants are addressed. Read sensitively,
much later fourteenth-century literature can be seen to convey,
not merely age-old expressions of the inherent viciousness of
oppressed masses seeking to break free from the bonds of perpetual toil, but reports of actual achievements secured in an age
of bewildering shifts of fortune and authority.
24 Recent notable “historical” approaches to late fourteenth-century authors include
J. Coleman, English Literature in History, 1350-1400: Medieval Readers and Writers
(London, 1981); D. Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (London,
1980); D. Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing,
1360-1430 (London, 1988); D. Pearsall, Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, 1992); A. Baldwin,
“The Historical Context”, in J. A. Alford (ed.), A Companion to “Piers Plowman”
(Berkeley, 1988).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
14
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
In fact, the poetry of the period, and especially the wide social
worlds created by Gower and Langland, describe patterns of
behaviour which have a good measure of economic coherence,
and which closely resemble those which we would be disposed
to recreate for ourselves if no other evidence existed.
Furthermore, in their treatment of the lower orders many lit
sources accord closely with the import of governmental, j
and seigneurial records. The elites whose views are repres
in surviving records tell us that those whose allotted role
toil in order to provide them with sustenance have become
and greedy; they are demanding extremely high wages and
vagant fringe benefits, including fine clothes and the be
and drink. They are lazy; they refuse to work unless the
hungry, and when they do accept employment they labo
less assiduously than in past times. Most workmen prefer
hired by the day, refusing to serve by the year, or indeed
term of reasonable length. They break their contracts and
from place to place and from employer to employer. They
in unbecoming leisure pursuits, including excessive dri
poaching and hunting, and their enhanced incomes enable
to buy clothes and other commodities which are unbefittin
lowly status.
William Langland’s Piers Plowman, dating from c. 1362-70 in
its earliest version, the A-text, contains a passus which chronicles
cycles of plenty and want in a rural community, and in so doing
encapsulates many of these sentiments and furnishes a cautionary
tale of the inherent idleness of labourers when they are not driven
by necessity. Passus VII of the A-text, which becomes passus VI
in the B-text written in the late 1370s, tells how Piers has to
prepare his land, plough it, and sow it with wheat, before he
leaves on pilgrimage. Initially Langland describes a rural idyll,
with each member of the community happy to perform a task
commensurate with his or her status, in return for the food which
the ploughman will supply from the fruits of his land. The knight
covenants to protect Holy Church and Piers from wasters and
wicked men, and to hunt the creatures which damage his fields
and crops. Lovely ladies with long fingers sew silk and sendal,
wives and widows and their daughters spin wool and flax and
make cloth, and labourers join willingly with Piers in a variety
of agricultural tasks. All seems to go well until Piers lays down
his plough “at high prime-tide” in order to oversee the workmen
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
15
and select the best so that he might hire them again at h
time. To his dismay Piers finds that some are drinking and s
instead of labouring, and when Piers chides them they fir
disabilities and sickness, and then insult him and threaten
whatever they want from him. The knight, on whom Pi
for assistance, has no greater success despite threatenin
with the law. Finally, Piers whooped after Hunger, imp
him to wreak vengeance on these wasters who ruin the
With relish Langland tells how Hunger immediately inv
the slothful workforce: in fear threshers flailed from morn
eve, for a potful of pease hermits dug and delved with
and shovels, and many a beggar was pleased to sweat for
When at last the world was again in good order, Pier
Hunger to leave, but before Hunger departed Piers sough
on how he might have mastery over wasters in the futur
knew that their present submissiveness was only due to
food. Predictably, when Hunger finally goes to sleep the
wickedness of the rustics is awakened: waster would not
beggars demanded the best bread and ale, and:
Laborers that haue no lond . to liuen on bote heore hon
Deyne not to dyne a day . niht-olde wortes.
Mai no peny-ale hem paye . ne no pece of bacun,
Bote it weore fresch flesch . or elles fisch i-friyet
Bothe chaude and pluschaud . for chele of heore mawe.
Then, in a castigation of behaviour in his own day, L
proclaims how the labourer must be hired at high wage
will complain and bemoan his fate, instead of bearing th
of poverty patiently; and how he blames God, grumbles
Reason, and curses the king for passing laws that o
labourers. Langland concludes the passus with a warn
workmen had better earn while they may, for Hunger is
to return.25
To members of the upper and middle strata of later fourteenthcentury society the recalcitrant behaviour of the lower orders was
all too comprehensible. Indeed, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, writing
in the mid-thirteenth century when the pressure of population
ensured that the peasantry were normally “iholde lowe with
25 William Langland, Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, in Three Parallel
Texts, together with Richard the Redeless, ed. W. W. Skeat, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1886), i,
pp. 192-224.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
16
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
diuers and contrarious chargis and trauailes, and among wrecchidnesse and woo”, foretold that any alleviation in their condition
would make “here herte toswelleth and waxith stoute and
proude”.26 John Gower, a contemporary of Langland, fil
substantial part of his copious verses with nostalgia for a byg
age when, in stark contrast to the aftermath of the Black Dea
not only did the higher estates obey God’s prescription, but t
third estate also knew its place. In the Mirour de l’omme, writ
before 1378, Gower rebukes the labourers of the present day
their laziness and for receiving wages three times more than t
work deserved, and he laments:
So goes the world from bad to worse when they who guard the sheep
the herdsmen in their places, demand to be rewarded more for th
labour than the master-bailiff used to be. And on the other hand it m
be seen that whatever the work may be the labourer is so expensive t
whoever wants anything done must pay five or six shillings for w
formerly cost two.7
This sad state of affairs Gower contrasts nostalgically with t
good old days, and relates how:
The labourers of olden times were not accustomed to eat wheat bre
their bread was made of beans and of other corn, and their drink
water. Then cheese and milk were as a feast to them; rarely had they
other feast than this. Their clothing was plain grey. Then was the wo
of such folk well-ordered in its estate.28
In the Vox clamantis (c. 1378) Gower complains that “our hap
times of old have been rudely wiped out, for a bitter day affl
the present”, and he seeks to explore where the responsibilit
lay for the “strange and highly burdensome evils [which] atte
us almost daily”.29 Each stratum of society is examined by h
in turn, and few within them are absolved from guilt; the pri
failing being the pursuit of personal gratification to the negl
of the common good. The vices of peasants, labourers and se
vants warrant a lengthy diatribe. Gower, who was a member
the gentry and had held manors in Kent, writes with m
26 Quoted from the late fourteenth-century translation by John Trevisa: On
Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomceus Anglicus
Proprietatibus Rerum, ed. M. C. Seymour et al., 3 vols. (Oxford, 1975-88), i, pp. 3
(vi, 11).
27 Mirour de l’omme, 11. 26437-48 (The Complete Works of John Gower, ed. G
Macaulay, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1899-1902), i, p. 293).
28 Ibid., 11. 26449-60 (ed. Macaulay, i, p. 293).
29 The Major Latin Works of John Gower: The “Voice of One Crying” and
“Tripartite Chronicle”, ed. E. W. Stockton (Seattle, 1962), pp. 98-9.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
17
firsthand experience of workmen and even at times uses the
person. He finds that sloth rules among those whose duty it
to “enter into the labours of agriculture, which are necessar
obtaining food and drink for the sustenance of the human
and grieves that “Now, however, scarcely a rustic wishes t
such work; instead he wickedly loafs everywhere”:
they are sluggish, they are scarce, and they are grasping. For the
little they do they demand the highest pay . . . one peasant insists
more than two demanded in days gone by. Yet a short time ag
performed more service than three do now, as those maintain w
well-acquainted with the facts … They desire the leisures of great m
but they have nothing to feed themselves with, nor will they be se
… everyone owning land complains in his turn about these people
stands in need of them and none has control over them. The peasan
old did not scorn God with impunity or usurp a noble worldly rank
Gower then writes of:
yet another group, associated with the peasants, which is widespread and
has no discipline. They are those who are unwilling to serve anyone by
the year. A man will retain them for scarcely a single month. On the
contrary, I hire such men for even a day’s pay – now here, now
somewhere else, now for myself, now for you … Because such a man is
hired as a member of your household, he scorns all ordinary food . . .
he grumbles . .. and he will not return tomorrow unless you provide
something better.31
Nor did the effrontery of the labourer stop at demanding leisure
and “things for his belly like a lord”. According to Gower,
“Servants are now masters and masters are servants . . . the
peasant pretends to imitate the ways of the freeman, and gives
himself the appearance of him in his clothes”. What is more,
such lowly people now had an appetite for luxuries, including
beds and pillows, and the “rich man in the city could hardly
procure his modest and proper foods”.32
The wealth of corroborative material contained in an extensive
range of records dating from the 1350s to the 1380s amply supports John Gower’s claim that the faults he found within society
were not merely a personal opinion but a reflection of the views
of all prudent people, which he reports “just like a well-informed
messenger”. The works of Gower and Langland have been quoted
at length because they contain the fullest and most coherent
30 Ibid., pp. 208-9.
31 Ibid., p. 210.
32 Ibid., pp. 58, 210, 259.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
18
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
analysis, but they are broadly representative of observations contained in the literature, chronicles and sermons of their age.33
Moreover, legislation was enacted to curb not only the excessive
rewards enjoyed by common people, but the manner in which
they spent their ill-gotten gains. A statute in 1363 was directed
towards the correction of “the outrageous and excessive apparel
of divers people against their estate and degree”, and prescribed
detailed regulations for the dress of grooms, agricultural workers
and those lowly persons who did not have goods to the value of
40s., thereby confirming the exasperation felt by Henry Knighton
with “the elation of the inferior people in dress and accoutrements
in these days, so that one person cannot be discerned from
another, in splendour of dress or belongings”. And in 1390, in
response to a parliamentary petition complaining that “low per-
sons . . . at times when good Christians on holy days are at
church, hearing divine services, go hunting in parks, rabbit-runs
and warrens of lords and others”, a statute was passed prohibiting
“any kind of artificer or labourer” from taking or destroying
“beasts of the forest, hares or rabbits, or other sport of
gentlefolk”.34
It is no coincidence, still less a contradiction, that a literary
cult of sancta rusticitas in which honest and true workmen were
idealized, especially in the form of the ploughman, should thrive
at a time when contemporary rustics were thought to be so
manifestly delinquent. Wyclif’s admonition to the labourer to
“lyve in mekenesse, and trewly and wylfully do thi labour” was
uttered when the battle was in real danger of being lost.35
Exhortation to spend a life of toil in order to secure eternal bliss
in the next world went hand in hand with coercion and the threat
of punishment in this. In Chaucer’s pilgrim band there are three
idealized portraits – the knight, the parson and the ploughman
-one from each of the three estates. They differ starkly from
33 Owst, Literature and Pulpit, pp. 363-5; Coleman, English Literature in History,
pp. 126-56; J. Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social
Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 70-1.
34 37 Edw. III, cc. 8-15; 13 Ric. II, 1, c. 13 (Statutes of the Realm, ed. Luders et al.,
i, p. 380; ii, p. 65); Rotuliparliamentorum, 6 vols. (London, 1783), iii, p. 273; Chronicon
Henrici Knighton, ed. Lumby, ii, p. 299.
35 Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, pp. 68-9; B. White, “Poet and
Peasant”, in F. R. H. Du Boulay and C. M. Barron (eds.), The Reign of Richard II:
Essays in Honour of May McKisack (London, 1971), pp. 70-2; Hilton, Class Conflict
and the Crisis of Feudalism, pp. 249-50.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
19
the vibrant three-dimensional characters who form the rest of
the throng, because unlike the others they were not intended to
be representative of the social realities of the later fourteenth
century. The qualities ascribed to the knight, parson and ploughman instead are a flat recitation of the traditional virtues appropriate to each of their estates in a divinely ordered society, and
as such they were in direct contrast to the selfishness which
Chaucer’s audience might be expected to perceive all around
them. Accordingly, the ploughman:
a trewe swynkere and a good was he,
Lyuynge in pees and parfit charitee,
who loved God, helped his neighbours, paid his tithes, and dressed
in a simple tabard.36
III
Sharply declining population was bound to increase the ratio of
land to people, but it is likely that the scarcity of labour was
further aggravated by the pronounced buoyancy of the postplague economy. Predictably, employers as a class responded by
attempting to negate and circumvent market forces, but although
as a body they supported the enactment of labour legislation they
lacked the solidarity necessary to ensure its successful enforcement. In default each employer’s own best interests were served
by securing enough labour to perform the work which he needed
to be done, and this involved competing with other employers
by offering higher wages and more allowances. As a Commons
petition of 1376 complained, servants and labourers “as soon as
their masters accuse them of bad service, or wish to pay them
for their labour according to the form of the statutes . . . take
flight and suddenly leave their employment and district”. It also
grumbled that:
above all and a greater mischief is the receiving of such vagrant labourers
and servants when they have fled from their masters’ service; for they
are taken into service immediately in new places, at such dear wages that
example and encouragement is afforded to all servants to depart into fresh
places, and go from master to master as soon as they are displeased about
any matter.
36 Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”; quotation from 11.
531-2: The Text of the Canterbury Tales, ed. J. M. Manly and E. Rickert, 8 vols.
(Chicago, 1940), iii, p. 24.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
20
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
Most significantly, the petitioners continued, “For fear of such
flights, the commons now dare not challenge or offend their
servants, but give them whatever they wish to ask, in spite of
the statutes and ordinances to the contrary”.37 These precise
sentiments must have been shared by the employer who brought
an action before the justices when two of his servants, to whom
he was giving respectively 2d. per day with food and 7s. a year
and a quarter of corn every ten weeks, were enticed away from
his service by another who offered them each 12d. per day.38 In
the words of Bertha Putnam, “The statutes of labourers must be
regarded not as having created a new system or a new set of
economic relations, but as affording proof that radical changes
had occurred, ushering in a new era”.39 The high prices which
farmers could obtain from selling their produce enabled even a
sharply rising wage bill to be comfortably absorbed, especially
by those employers who were able to call upon labour services
from their tenants to satisfy part of the needs of the demesne.40
In direct contrast, however, the accounts kept by the great
landlords of the income and expenditure of their estates reveal,
at first sight at least, scant trace of the inflation of wages and the
cascade of blandishments which contemporaries witnessed all
about them. Instead the accounts of estates beyond the ambit of
London generally record relatively modest increases in basic rates
of pay. The composite indices compiled by Farmer, for example,
have payments for a range of agricultural tasks increasing by
12-28 per cent comparing the 1340s with the 1350s, and 20-40
per cent comparing the 1340s with the 1360s. Further investigation, however, soon reveals that the wage payments incorpor-
ated in these indices are far from comprising the total
remuneration which workers received. The construction of
adequately representative time series demands data which are not
only voluminous and continuous, but amenable to precise quantification. As a consequence those compiling such series have had
to ignore a whole range of additional payments in cash as well as
in kind which are referred to in the accounts.
37 Rotuli parliamentorum, ii, pp. 340-1: printed in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed.
R. B. Dobson, 2nd edn (London, 1970), pp. 72-4.
38 Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, p. 178.
39 Ibid., p. 223.
40 Levett, “Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester”, pp. 102-3.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
21
Beveridge reached a “provisional conclusion” that casua
men on Winchester manors did not normally receive an
ciable addition in kind to their money wages, and Farm
obliged to exclude from his calculations the “gifts” in c
corn which appear in very many accounts because they c
consistently be quantified satisfactorily. Yet in their pu
internally consistent wage series both scholars were awar
risks they ran of understating the true rate of increase i
neration after 1349. Not everything which counted f
teenth-century employees can be counted by historians,
evident that even those unquantifiable extras which foun
way into the records of the great estates added an ex
significant element to the real wages of those who so
labour. Further investigation of the Winchester acco
Beveridge’s team of researchers, after his 1936 article h
set up in proof, necessitated the addition of a postscrip
admitted that “extra payments for threshing over and ab
stated piece rates in fact occur in most of the manors inv
in a good many years between 1348 and 1373”.41 Farmer
he analysed these bonuses in more detail, found that th
often very substantial indeed, although he too could find
of satisfactorily incorporating them into his tables. In 1
Witney, for example, threshers and winnowers were paid
at the conventional basic rate of 5¼d. for processing thr
quarters, amounting in all to a wage bill of 58s. 2½d., b
were also given currall wheat worth 30s., which brou
average value of their piece-rates up to almost 8d. per t
the following year the threshers and winnowers at Witn
given a cash bonus of 11s. 11 d. instead of free corn
effectively raised their rate of pay to 7½d. But it is 5¼d
72d.-8d. which finds its way into the published table of
rates for these years; the true level of pay is not list
eventually, at Witney as well as at many other Winchester m
it was formally established by the estate administration
new basic rate.42
A similar sequence of official subterfuge and pretence f
41 W. H. Beveridge, “Wages in the Winchester Manors”, Econ. Hist.
(1936-7), p. 37.
42 Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500″, p. 470. Farmer notes that
been included, the effect would have been to show wages rising more swi
1360s and more slowly in the 1370s”.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
22
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
by acceptance and practice can be observed at Gussage (Dorset),
a manor of the earl of Northampton. In 1364 the auditors disallowed the reeve’s attempt to charge 7d. rather than 4d. per acre
for the remuneration of hired harvesters who supplemented the
services rendered by the customary tenants. In the following year,
however, 7d. per acre was accepted by the auditors on the pretext
that extra casual labour was needed because some customary
holdings were in the lord’s hands, and in 1366 7d. per acre was
also accepted by the auditors, who gave rain at harvest time as a
reason. For a few years thereafter, although casual harvesters
continued to receive a total of 7d. rather than 4d. for each acre
that they cut, the additional 3d. per acre was accounted for under
the heading of “expenses”, until at last the pretences were finally
dropped and almost all the grain was cut by contract at an
officially recognized 7d. per acre.43 Thorold Rogers too had noted
that frequently in the accounts after the Black Death entries of
payments at certain rates were struck through, and lower rates
inserted in their place. He decided that there was little alternative
but to take for his data the substituted figures, but it made him
uneasy and he remarked: “I cannot help thinking that these
changes point to evasions of the statute, and that perhaps the
labourer was compensated to the full extent of the previous entry,
but in some covert way, or by some means which would not
come within the penalties of the statute”.44
We should share Thorold Rogers’s unease with official entries
in accounts, for employers were naturally unwilling to permit
excessively illegal rates to be openly recorded, and there were
innumerable ways of covertly circumventing the limitations which
the labour legislation sought to impose. New College, Oxford,
had lands in the manor of Havering to the east of London, but,
although Havering was a high wage area where remuneration far
in excess of legal levels was commonly paid, the college accountants recorded only the permitted statutory levels of pay in its
accounts. However, in order to be able to recruit adequate labour
the college gave its day workers substantial allowances of grain,
and it also appears to have granted allotments of land on the
43 Ibid., p. 472.
44 J. E. T. Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, 7 vols. (Oxford,
1866-1902), i, p. 300; J. E. T. Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London,
1884), p. 229.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
23
demesne to servants.45 Many other devices were ava
which reeves and auditors could conceal their breaches of the
law; for example, on the Winchester estates, as elsewhere, muc
of the occasional work was carried out “ad tascham”, or by
“conventio”, with the daily rate of pay conveniently hidde
within a lump sum.46
While the evidence of manorial accounts proves beyond conten
tion that the vast majority of the greater landlords openly pa
cash wages in excess of the unrealistic maxima specified by th
law, and by a variety of means gave substantial supplements t
these rates, the lengths to which employers could be forced to g
in order to get the workers they needed is revealed even more
starkly in prosecutions brought under the labour legislation. Her
wages two or three times higher than the legally permitted leve
are very frequently cited.47 Despite the potential for distortio
which bedevils all legal sources, proceedings before the justices
reveal much of the reality of the workings of the labour marke
including the variety of bargains which were struck. Wide diffe
ences in rates of pay and fringe benefits are often recorded in
single year for similar sorts of work within the same region.
Putnam, for example, found that in the East Riding of Yorkshir
in 1362-3, harvest workers were given 3d., 4d. and 6d. per day
in each case “with food”, while unlawful threshing rates varied
from 1 d. to 4d. per day, also with food.48 The highest recorde
wages doubtless owed much to acute labour shortages, at particu
lar times and in particular places, and perhaps something also to
the malice of plaintiffs, while the almost contemporaneou
instances of the acceptance of near-statutory wages might refle
a temporary local sufficiency of labour even in an age of gener
scarcity. The market for labour was clearly far from being
perfect one, but the impression which emerges strongly from t
judicial records of the third quarter of the century is that, despite
the statutes and the seigneurial authority which landlords pos
45M. K. McIntosh, Autonomy and Community: The Royal Manor of Haverin
1200-1500 (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 164-5.
46 Levett, “Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester”, pp. 97, 101.
47 As may be seen from a perusal of the published proceedings. These are conven
ently listed in S. A. C. Penn and C. Dyer, “Wages and Earnings in Late Mediev
England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws”, Econ. Hist. Re
2nd ser., xliii (1990), pp. 375-6.
48 Yorkshire Sessions of the Peace, 1361-1364, ed. B. H. Putnam (Yorkshire Archaeo
Soc., record ser., c, Wakefield, 1939).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
24
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
sessed over their men, it was very frequently a seller’s market.
There were very many workmen who drove extremely hard
bargains with those who sought their labour and when they could
not obtain the terms they desired, like the Lincolnshire ploughman who refused to serve except by the day and with meals of
fresh meat instead of salt, they moved on confident of finding
them elsewhere.49 At Knightsbridge even the carpenter who made
the stocks with which to imprison those workers who refused to
swear obedience to the Statute of Labourers was paid at the illegal
rate of 5½d. per day.50
Although the series of cash wage payments which have been
extracted from manorial records are almost certainly a serious
understatement of the prevailing norm, the extraordinarily sluggish behaviour of the real wage statistics which have been computed for the quarter-century after the Black Death is also due
in major part to the high prices of basic foodstuffs. Thus it is a
matter of prime importance whether casual labourers were commonly provided with meals at work or other allowances of food.
What could be more natural than for farmers to offer inducements
to their workforces in the form of free food and drink? It was an
arrangement which could satisfy both parties: it was cheaper for
employers to supply to their labourers the produce of their own
farms than its equivalent value in cash, and it was attractive for
labourers to be fed on the job rather than having to purchase
their subsistence retail. Moreover, the feeding of the workforce
had the added advantage of hiding extra payments from the
prying eyes of auditors and justices. Overwhelming evidence as
well as common sense indicates that such fringe benefits were
indeed extremely widespread.
As has been noted, both Gower and Langland took it for
granted that it was common practice for agricultural day labourers
to be given meals, and for them to consist of large quantities of
good food and drink. Their testimony finds ample confirmation
in records of the actual rewards of labourers revealed in prosecu-
tions under the Ordinance and Statutes. There we find an abund-
ance of casual labourers and artisans of all kinds in receipt of
illicit food: ploughmen, haymakers, threshers, thatchers, tilers,
49 Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, p. 91.
50 Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500”, p. 484 n.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
25
shepherds and common labourers. John Bishop, whose s
was simple digging, was reported to be unwilling to work
by the day, taking 5d. with food, and even then he w
prepared to dig up small trees.51 Significantly, a statute
went some way towards acknowledging widespread practi
it empowered the justices of the peace in each county:
[to] make Proclamation by their discretion according to the d
victuals how much every Mason, Carpenter, Tiler and other Cra
Workmen, and other Labourers by the Day, as well in Harvest as
Times of the Year, after their Degree, shall take by the Day w
and Drink, or without Meat and Drink.52
IV
What the new opportunities and enhanced rewards meant
standards of living of the peasant and labouring classes
third quarter of the fourteenth century cannot be determ
precise quantitative terms. But some probable outcomes
projected. The third estate had many constituent elemen
course, whose fortunes were affected in different ways
differing extents, and they should not be dealt with en mass
as John Gower treats separately at times the position of
husbandmen, ploughmen, labourers and servants, so mus
ians. A crucial factor in the outcome was the amount of land
which the individual or family held. Landholding not only playe
a major part in the determination of the quantities of food whi
needed to be purchased or could be sold, it was also a prim
influence on the amount of time that could be spared for casu
labouring or the amount of help that needed to be hired.
Let us consider first the experience of landless agricultur
labourers, the men who in Langland’s words had “no land to li
on but their hands”. For the sake of simplicity we may beg
with the single man who sought to earn his living entirely fro
casual labouring. After the Black Death his money wage w
likely to have been significantly higher, his ability to find wor
was likely to have been substantially greater and, for at least pa
of the time, he was likely to have received enhanced allowance
of food and drink and other benefits from his employers
51 Rolls of the Warwickshire and Coventry Sessions of the Peace, 1377-1397, ed. E. G
Kimball (Dugdale Soc. Pubns, xvi, London, 1939), p. 159.
52 13 Ric. II, 1, c. 8 (Statutes of the Realm, ed. Luders et al., ii, p. 63).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
26
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
Operating in the other direction, of course, was the rise in the
cost of the food and drink which he had to buy. But it is scarcely
credible that a labourer in the 1350s and 1360s was not far better-
off than he, or his predecessors, had been in the 1330s and 1340s,
and if the comparison is extended backwards to the early four-
teenth century the scale of the improvement becomes even
greater. Parallel assumptions would hold true for single women,
who also benefited markedly from enhanced employment prospects and earnings.53 Likewise, the household incomes of married
labourers would have risen, and children too doubtless made a
greater contribution to the family budget. If the provision of food
by employers shielded labourers from the full impact of the high
food prices of this period, so too did the possession of land. To
the degree that labourers were landholders, their disposable
incomes would be boosted by the self-supply of at least part of
their subsistence requirements. Once again, conditions postplague were in general more favourable than hitherto, with the
landless and near-landless having improved prospects of obtaining
the plots that they desired. Labourers in Stebbing and Thaxted
(Essex) in 1381-93 had a mean of 4.25 acres per head, and a
median of 2.25 acres, upon which no doubt they spent part of
their “leisure” time in intensive cultivation.54
It has been argued, possibly with justification, that in the
aftermath of the Black Death richer peasants gained to a greater
extent than did smallholders and landless.55 But this does not
mean that the latter did not gain substantially, still less that they
did not gain at all. Nor does the persistence of smallholders, or
even a rise in their aggregate numbers on some manors, indicate
that there was no promotion taking place among the lowest orders
of rural society, for the simple reason that the manorial rentals
upon which such calculations are based take no account of the
numbers or proportions of landless. It is quite possible to envisage
circumstances where in periods of declining population the gaining of land by individuals and families which had previously been
landless might lead to an increase in the numbers of smallholders
53 S. A. C. Penn, “Female Wage Earners in Late Fourteenth-Century England”,
Agric. Hist. Rev., xxxv (1987); J. Goldberg, Women, Work and Life-Cycle in a Medieval
Economy: York (Oxford, 1992).
54 Poos, Rural Society, p. 26.
55 Razi, Life, Marriage and Death, pp. 147-8.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
27
rather than a reduction, and betoken betterment rather th
impoverishment.
Earnings in the era following the Black Death, it has
suggested, increased by much less than wages because a str
preference for leisure led to a reduction in the number of
that were worked.56 The profile that emerges from the la
legislation and its enforcement, and from the observation
contemporaries, is undoubtedly of a workforce which was s
taneously demanding high wages and refusing to accept w
The compulsory service clauses in the Ordinance and Sta
were enforced actively and the details of the cases arising
them indicate the widespread appeal of leisure. Refusal to
was apparently endemic. The compulsory service and the m
imum wage clauses of the legislation were, of course, intim
linked, and some of the refusal to work was undoubtedly d
an unwillingness to accept employment for wages pegged at
utory levels. But it is also clear that the opposite was true:
was being refused because high wages had already been ear
Such behaviour exasperated employers at a time of labour
city, and led to a profusion of complaints, which found end
expression in the works of Langland and Gower. “The serv
of the plough, contrary to the law of the land, seeks to m
fool of the land. They desire the leisures of great men, but
have nothing to feed themselves with, nor will they b
vants.”57 Viewed from the lofty heights of affluence, the b
our of peasants and labourers who refused to accept wo
unprecedentedly favourable terms when they evidently pos
so little, was not only destructive of the common good: it
irrational. Yet from the perspective of labourers who had sat
their immediate subsistence needs, the purchase of a break
toil by the forgoing of the wages that could be earned by u
taking it was both desirable and rational. The newly found
dom to choose when to work and on what terms was h
prized, as the peasants confirmed when they petitioned the
at Mile End in 1381 seeking that “no man should serve any
except at his own will and by means of regular covenant”.
56 G. Persson, “Consumption, Labour and Leisure in the Late Middle Ag
D. Menjot (ed.), Manger et boire au Moyen Age, 2 vols. (Nice, 1984), i, pp. 2
57 Gower, Vox clamantis, v, 9 (ed. Stockton, p. 209).
58 The Anonimalle Chronicle, 1333 to 1381, ed. V. H. Galbraith (Manche
1927), pp. 144-5.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
28
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
Nevertheless, the cherishing of freedom of contract and the
enjoyment of leisure should not be taken to imply that after 1349
the number of days actually worked by labourers fell below the
levels that had been common in preceding decades, when there
was a glut of people seeking work and long periods of enforced
idleness must have been the lot of many. It is far more likely that
although labourers and smallholders were refusing to accept all
the work they were offered they were on average spending more
time, not less, in employment than their predecessors had been
able to. Such enhanced levels of employment would reconcile the
two common but seemingly contradictory complaints, that the
lower orders never worked more than they had to and that they
habitually defied the church by working on religious holidays.59
Increased employment as well as higher rewards would also lend
credence to the universal observation that labourers and peasants
now possessed the purchasing power with which to endow them-
selves with a whole range of consumables unbecoming their
station.
Despite the notorious reluctance of men and women to enter
into long-term contracts at this time, many thousands did accept
employment as servants and famuli. At first sight, the payments
made to the permanent manorial labour force would seem to
confirm the judgement that “many peasants did not prosper
greatly after the Black Death”.60 For once again the superbly
documented Winchester estates have provided the bulk of the
information, and once again they are models of conservatism. On
most of the Winchester manors the recorded money wages of the
famuli were no higher at the close of the fourteenth century than
they had been just prior to the Black Death, nor did grain
allowances, which usually comprised the bulk of incomes, increase
much in either quantity or quality.61 But elsewhere there is
abundant evidence of significant improvements in the level of
rewards. For example, the money wages of the famuli working
on the demesnes of Christ Church priory and Ramsey abbey rose
sharply in the wake of the Black Death. The permanent increases
in the stipends of Kentish ploughmen were of the order of 3s.-5s.
annually, which generally took them to 10s.-12s., while in
Huntingdonshire the stipends of famuli frequently doubled from
59 Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, p. 79.
0 Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500”, p. 480.
61 Ibid.; Levett, “Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester”, p. 101.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
29
3s.-3s.6d. to 6s. The augmentation which took place in g
liveries was normally, in percentage terms, far less generous
that which took place in stipends but, in a period of rising pr
their value rose markedly. Significantly, in a labour ma
renowned for the narrowing of pay differentials, it was the
skilled servants who enjoyed the greatest rises: the Christ Ch
pigmen’s money wages and grain liveries were common
doubled.62
Once again far higher rates of remuneration are to be found in
judicial records, where many ploughmen and other senior famuli
were stated to have been receiving stipends well in excess of 20s.,
with some in excess of 40s. Moreover, we find that farm servants
were granted a wide range of enhanced allowances and perquisites
in addition to their cash wages and board, including clothing,
pasture rights, plots of land rent-free, concessionary ploughing
of that land by their employer’s plough team, gifts of cash at
festival times, and occasional free meals and parties.63 In fact, the
varied forms of the payments and allowances enjoyed by the
famuli render any accurate quantification impossible, and it is rare
to be able to discover the full constituents of the package of
remuneration even on the best-documented estates. The entitle-
ment to free clothing was an especially popular benefit, the precise
nature of which must often have been a matter of spirited negoti-
ation. To a considerable extent it was the improved bargaining
power of servants which lay behind the lamentations in sermons
about the outrageous apparel of rustics. Exaggerated though it
no doubt was, there was likely to have been a kernel of truth in
the satirical portrait of a dandified
wrecchid cnave, that goth to the plough and to carte, that hath no more
good but serveth from yer to yer for his liflode [for whom] there-as
sumtyme a white curtel and a russett gowne wolde have served suchon
ful wel, now he muste have a fresch doublet of fyve schillings or more
the price; and above, a costly gowne with bagges hangynge to his kne,
and iridelid undir his girdil as a new ryven roket, and a hood on his
heved, with a thousand ragges on his tipet; and gailli hosid an schood as
62 M. Mate, “Labour and Labour Services on the Estates of Canterbury Cathedral
Priory in the Fourteenth Century”, Southern History, vii (1985); N. R. Goose, “Wage
Labour on a Kentish Manor: Meopham, 1307-75”, Archaeologia Cantiana, xcii (1977);
J. A. Raftis, The Estates of Ramsey Abbey (Toronto, 1957), pp. 199-208; Penn and
Dyer, “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England”, p. 371.
63 Raftis, Estates of Ramsey Abbey, p. 201; D. L. Farmer, “Crop Yields, Prices and
Wages in Medieval England”, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Hist., new ser., vi
(1983), pp. 145, 148.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
30
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
though it were a squyer of cuntre; a dager harneisid with selver bi his
gurdel, or ellis it were not worth a pese.
The food allowances given to the senior members of the famuli
often exceeded six quarters of mixed grains annually, which
would have gone a long way towards keeping a family in bread,
pottage and ale; sometimes they also received portions of cheese
and meat. Thus servants’ families would have been largely cushioned against the high food prices which prevailed in the third
quarter of the century. If, on the other hand, servants were single
or childless surplus corn could be sold, thereby adding appreciably
to their disposable incomes. The produce from the plots of land
and animals which the famuli commonly held also contributed
substantially to their budgets.
It is also important to appreciate that little is known of the
precise demands placed upon the famuli by their employers. The
extent of their duties is likely to have been a matter of negotiation, and it would be wrong to assume that all servants were
obliged to work full-time throughout the whole year. Thus,
despite the lack of precision in surviving sources, there can be
little doubt that the incomes and purchasing power of the great
majority of famuli and servants rose appreciably after mid-
century, as employers competed actively for labour and sought
to entice reluctant workers into long-term contracts.
It has been the intention of this article to concentrate upon the
rewards gained from labouring for wages, and not to analyse in
detail the incomes of those among the peasantry who held significant or substantial amounts of land. None the less, it is difficult
to conceive that the generality of peasant landholders did not
register some appreciable improvement in their condition in the
generation after the Black Death. Members of peasant landholding families, of course, usually spent some of their time working
for wages, but their economic fortunes depended in addition upon
the rents they paid, the yields of their lands and the prices they
obtained for the produce which they sold. Families which possessed a subsistence-sized holding, of perhaps ten to fifteen acres,
were shielded from high food prices and were unlikely to have
needed much if any hired help to supplement that provided by
members of the household. Those with larger holdings derived
benefits from the sale of produce at buoyant prices which were
64 Owst, Literature and Pulpit, p. 369.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
31
likely to have far outweighed the increased costs of th
which they needed to hire. To the extent that aggregate
to landlords declined, whether in the form of regular ca
occasional seigneurial dues or labour services, the ne
which accrued to tenants would have further appreciate
Thus, excessive reliance upon real wage statistics deriv
the basic daily money wage rates recorded in manorial
and the price of grain and other necessities has masked
which labourers and smallholders made. In the aftermath of the
Black Death there was a dramatic shift away from the rampant
unemployment and underemployment which had characterized
the preceding era, and there were far greater and more diverse
employment opportunities than hitherto. Since workmen were
scarce, employers naturally sought to entice and retain them by
offering an attractive selection of “perks” and bonuses in addition
to money wages, while at the same time endeavouring, because
of the labour legislation, to hide these illicit incentives from
prying eyes. Non-monetary “perks”, commonly in the form of
essential items such as food, clothing and accommodation, when
combined with increased earnings, resulted in materially
enhanced disposable incomes. Perhaps for the first time, labourers
and smallholders were commonly left with money in their pockets
after their basic subsistence needs had been satisfied. Such sums
might well appear, in comparison with more recent times, to
have been pitifully small, but they endowed their owners with a
measure of independence and choice, which in addition to enabling them to acquire more in the way of necessities also facilitated
the purchase of leisure or the odd item of conspicuous display
which so infuriated their social superiors. It was an unprecedented
state of affairs, and, though they were far from enjoying true
affluence, in comparison with former times, there was more than
a grain of truth in Froissart’s belief in the “ease and riches that
the common people were of”.65
This is not to say that improvement was the lot of all, or that
its scale was invariably substantial. High wages were not on
offer at all times and in all places, and awareness of opportunities
was doubtless often limited by imperfect knowledge. Nor, of
course, was poverty eradicated by population decline. In the C
65 The Chronicles of Froissart, trans. Lord Berners, ed. G. and W. Anderson (London,
1963), p. 160.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
32
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
version of Piers Plowman, dating from the 1380s or early 1390s,
Langland writes eloquently of poor people in cottages, burdened
with many children and with their landlord’s rent to find, who
though working as hard as they were able still suffered the
pangs of hunger and privation; and his portrayal of the victims
of poverty was echoed in other works, including most notably
Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede.66 Life even in an age of general
labour scarcity could sometimes be precarious for the industrious
as well as for the impotent. Harvest failures continued to occur,
and the incidence of bad weather may well have increased in
the 1350s and 1360s. Nor should it be forgotten that major
epidemics were the harbingers of upheaval and trauma which
did not leave the survivors undamaged. The post-plague era
was certainly far from being the best of all possible worlds for
those who gained their livelihoods from manual labour and from
working their own lands. But we must beware of allowing the
enduring features of pre-industrial societies to obscure the
relative gains made by the great majority of the post-plague
generation. Indeed the harshness with which Langland castigates
the sturdy beggars and idlers of his day should alert us to the
significance of the new emphasis which society was placing upon
the necessity of discriminating between the deserving and the
undeserving poor. The indigent able-bodied, personal misfortune aside, were deemed by the affluent classes to be more in
need of punishment than of charity, for the simple reason that
gainful employment seemed to be available for everyone capable
of working.
V
It is time to rein back the exuberance with which historians have
long sought to undermine the significance of the Black Death.
The fact that there was much in the years after 1349 which
appeared to revert towards the status quo ante should not be
permitted to overshadow the fact that there was also much that
had been transformed. Nor should it be assumed that the new
directions which can be discerned in the first half of the fourteenth
66 G. Shepherd, “Poverty in Piers Plowman”, in T. H. Aston et al. (eds.), Social
Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton (Cambridge, 1983); Pierce the
Ploughman’s Crede, ed. W. W. Skeat (Early Eng. Text Soc., original ser., xxx, London,
1867), pp. 16-17.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
33
century would all have been followed with the same fo
for the same duration without the intervention of the Black Death
and later epidemics.67
The peasant and labouring masses were at the heart of the
most dramatic changes. The huge death-rate of 1348-9, and the
succeeding epidemics of 1360-2 and 1369, helped to ensure that
the survivors were better rewarded for their labours and better
fed. But, most importantly, the scarcity enjoyed by the common
people had ramifications which went far beyond a simple
increase in their real wages. Even the meanest of them had been
endowed with value. With their basic subsistence needs virtually
assured they could focus their ambitions elsewhere: more and
tastier food and drink, better clothing, a little leisure, a little
more land. Many in the common multitude raised their horizons
higher still. The competition for their labour as well as the
improvement in their living standards enhanced their self-esteem
and encouraged them to question authority and tradition.
Froissart with hindsight identified a link between the high living
standards of the common people and the Peasants’ Revolt of
1381; Gower with foresight a few years before the rising
proclaimed in the Mirour de l’omme that rebelliousness was so
rampant that it threatened the “merciless destruction” of the
higher estate:
it is certainly a great error to see the higher estate in danger from the
villein class. It seems to me that lethargy has put the lords to sleep so
that they do not guard against the folly of the common people, but they
allow that nettle to grow which is too violent in its nature.
The Black Death may have brought improved material living
standards but it did not bring a swift end to villeinage. The same
buoyancy in the rural economy which ensured speedy and substantial increases in the wages of labourers and servants and the
incomes of peasant landholders also helped to shore up the rickety
framework of villeinage. High and rising agricultural prices
boosted the profits of farmers and sustained the demand for land,
and despite the sharp drop in population there was a swift and
almost complete re-occupation of the holdings of those who perished. As long as tenants continued to derive considerable benefit
from landholding, rent reductions on decent land were in the
67 Miller and Hatcher, Medieval England, ch. 7.
68 Gower, Mirour de l’omme, 11. 26482-90 (ed. Macaulay, i, p. 293).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
34
PAST AND PRESENT
NUMBER 144
main kept to relatively modest proportions, the efforts of landlords to resist change were bolstered, and the severity of the
antagonism towards villeinage was tempered.69 In the mid-1370s,
however, conditions began to alter: the era of expensive grain
came to a sudden end, and prices tumbled.70 The slump in grain
prices at a time when population may well have been continuing
on a downward path finally undermined the value of land. In
such circumstances it was natural for tenants to seek reductions
in their payments; but whereas the rents of leasehold and noncustomary land could be renegotiated with relative ease, the dues
and obligations of the unfree were in theory fixed at the will of
the lord, and in practice hedged about by custom enforceable
through manorial courts. As the competition for land waned so
resentment over the persistence of villeinage intensified, and the
unfree were stimulated to seek means of escaping from its burdens
and even to demand its abolition.
In October 1377, perhaps at the precise time when Gower was
penning his prescient remarks in the Mirour de l’omme, and when
the general run of grain prices had plunged 40-50 per cent below
those prevailing in the preceding two years and the average level
of the 1360s, a petition was presented to parliament claiming that
“in many parts of the kingdom of England the villeins and tenants
of land in villeinage” were staging a withdrawal of customs and
services and had “made confederation and alliance together to
resist the lords and their officials by force”. 7 The speedy response
of parliament in granting to all aggrieved landlords the right to
have special commissions of inquiry set up under the Great Seal,
with the power to imprison malefactors without bail, together
with evidence of riots and confederations from the special com-
missions which had already been appointed, confirms that
England was indeed experiencing an unprecedented wave of
unrest. Such a conclusion is further supported by a contemporaneous rash of appeals to Domesday Book from the rebellious villein
tenants of at least forty manors across a broad swathe of southern
England, which, it was asserted, they sought to use as a pretext
for claiming discharge “of all manner of service both from their
69 Hatcher, Plague, Population and the English Economy, pp. 31-5.
70 Farmer, “Prices and Wages, 1350-1500″, pp. 502-3.
71 Rotuli parliamentorum, iii, pp. 21-2. The petition is translated in Peasants’ Revolt
of 1381, ed. Dobson, pp. 76-8.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
ENGLAND IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BLACK DEATH
35
persons and their holdings”.72 Such aspirations were to
a few years later in the demand made by the rebels in
to the king that “henceforward no man should be a serf
homage or any type of service to any lord”.73 The
people had already gained substantial improvement
rewards they obtained for selling their labour, and now
was turning irrevocably against villeinage.
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
John Hatcher
72 J. H. Tillotson, “Peasant Unrest in the England of Richard II: Som
from Royal Records”, Historical Studies, xvi (1974); R. Faith, “The ‘Gr
of 1377 and Peasant Ideology”, in R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (eds.), T
Rising of 1381 (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 43-73.
73 Anonimalle Chronicle, ed. Galbraith, p. 144.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:02 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
A Plague of Plagues: The Problem of Plague Diagnosis in Medieval England
Author(s): John Theilmann and Frances Cate
Source: The Journal of Interdisciplinary History , Winter, 2007, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Winter,
2007), pp. 371-393
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4139605
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Terms and Conditions of Use


The MIT Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The
Journal of Interdisciplinary History
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:55 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvu:3 (Winter, 2oo7), 371-393.
John Theilmann and Frances Cate
A Plague of Plagues: The Problem of Plague
Diagnosis in Medieval England Beginning in 1348, an
epidemic of massive proportions struck Western Europe, spreading from Italy northward. Contemporary accounts referred to it as
the pestis or a pestilentia generali, terms translated as plague. Although it has generally been accepted that this great epidemic of
the mid-fourteenth century, often referred to as the Black Death,
was the plague, this view has been challenged by scholars from
various disciplines.
Although the term plague has, at times, been used to describe
an epidemic of great magnitude, this article will use it in the biological sense. Alexander Yersin identified the bacterial agent of the
disease during the Hong Kong epidemic of 1894. First labeled
Pasteurella pestis, the bacteria would later be renamed Yersinia pestis
in Yersin’s honor. There are three related Yersinia species: Yersinia
pestis, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, and Yersinia entercolitica. Only the
first one poses a major threat to humans. Dating from the early
nineteenth century, scholars have equated the great pestilence of
the fourteenth century with the Black Death and, by extension, a
plague. In this case, the term plague was merely a label for a disease
of extreme virulence.’
In one sense, the question of whether the Black Death was
Yersinia pestis or some other ailment is a moot point, because only
laboratory testing can provide conclusive evidence for a clinical
diagnosis. The only available evidence derives from chronicles and
medical treatises often fragmentary and even misleading; a few
mortality records, often oblique in origin; and scant DNA evidence.
In another sense, the question of whether the outbreak in the
fourteenth century was indeed the plague is relevant to underJohn M. Theilmann is Professor of History and Politics, Converse College. He is the author
of Discrimination and Campaign Contributions (New York, i991); “Caught between Political
Theory and Political Practice: The Record and Process of the Deposition of Richard II,” History of Political Thougiht, XXV (2004), 599-619.
Frances Cate is a student at the Medical University of South Carolina.
? 2oo6 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Journal of Interdisciplinary
History, Inc.
I Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker (trans. B.G. Babington), The Black Death in the Fourteenth
Century (London, 1833).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:55 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
372 1 JOHN THEILMANN AND FRANCES CATE
standing the impact of disease on medieval society and to understanding the potential impact of the plague today. The publication
of three recent works reopens the question of plague diagnosis in a
fashion that warrants re-examination of the evidence.2
This article examines this vexed question using England as a
case study-England having been the focus of much of the debate
concerning the viability of the plague diagnosis. This approach
presents both difficulties and advantages concerning evidence. It
takes into account medieval descriptions of the plague; early twentieth-century, pre-antibiotic plague epidemics; and various scientific analyses of plague, including efforts to analyze medieval DNA.
This interdisciplinary perspective produces better results than a
study centered on history alone.
Doubts concerning the diagnosis of plague for the great
epidemic of the fourteenth century center on the following points
of contention: timing-the speed with which the epidemic
spread; mortality rate-the percentage of the population that died
during the epidemic, in toto and by gender; seasonality-the
months of the year that exhibited the highest mortality; the agents
of infection-the manner in which the disease spread; and
symptoms-the extent to which the indications at the time match
those of Yersinia pestis. Critics of the plague diagnosis advance arguments concerning these points to show that the disease of late
medieval England could not have been the plague because the evidence does not fit the nomenclature of the plague in the twentieth
century.
This study falls into the pro-plague camp, arguing that the ep-
idemic that spread across mid-fourteenth-century England was
Yersinia pestis, though with an important caveat: The plague did
not by itself cause the high mortality in mid- and late fourteenth-
century England. No one disease alone could have caused that
mortality rate. Plague, however, played a major role in the large
number of deaths.
THE PROGRESS OF THE PLAGUE Although not all of the chronicles
agree, the Black Death seems to have arrived in England at the end
of June 1348 through the port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. An
2 Susan Scott and C.J. Duncan, The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal (New York, 1984);
idem, Return of the Black Death (Chichester, 2004); Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., The Black Death
Transformed (London, 2002).
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:55 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
A PLAGUE OF PLAGUES 373
entry point in the southwest, probably connectin
makes the most sense, but both the Anonimalle Ch
Eulogiumn Chronicon indicate that the plague arriv
whereas Henry Knighton indicated that it was Sou
disease spread across the south of England, remain
shire in early I349. It had reached London by Nove
moving north. Robert of Avesbury indicates that t
swath through London, striking particularly hard
through May 1349. Late in 1348 and early in 1349,
rived in the north, either by land or by sea throug
Newcastle. Gradually the plague spread throughout
England, apparently peaking in Lincolnshire in July
high mortality to Lincoln and to the hilly and rem
the diocese.3
The chronicle accounts are uniform in indicating high mortality, but they do not provide a definition of high. Robert of
Avesbury and Henry Knighton maintained that death generally
occurred within two to four days after symptoms were noticed
and indicated that the disease spread quickly. Geoffrey le Baker
provides the fullest account, indicating that this first outbreak often killed the young and strong. He also provides one of the few
English descriptions of the symptoms, describing what he calls
boils and black pustules on various parts of the body.4
Evidence for the mortality of the disease is second-hand, pri3 Antonia Gransden, “A Fourteenth-Century Chronicle from the Grey Friars of Lynn,”
English Historical Review, LXXII (1957), 274; Edward Maunde Thompson (ed.), Adae
Murimnuth continuate chronica Robertus de Avesbury de gestis mirabilibus regis Edwardi Tertii (Rolls
Series, 93, 1889), 406; Ranulf Higden (ed. C. Babington and Joseph Rawson Lumby),
Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden monachi Cestrenis (Rolls Series, 41, 1866), II, 213; J. M. J.
Fletcher, “The Black Death in Dorset (1348-49),” Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and
Antiquarian Field Club, XLIII (1922), 1-14. V. H. Galbraith (ed.), The Anonimalle Chronicle,
1333-1381 (Manchester, 1927), 30; F. Scott Haydon (ed.), Eulogium Chronicon sive temporis
(Rolls Series, 9, 1858), I, 344; Geoffrey Howard Martin (ed.), Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337-1396
(New York, 1995), 98-99; C. E. Boucher, “The Black Death in Bristol,” Transactions of the
Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, LX (193 8), 31-46; Thomas Beaumont James,
“The Black Death in Hampshire,” Hampshire Papers, XVIII (1999), 9; E. M. Thompson (ed.),
Avesbury, 406-407, 409. Richard Lomas, “The Black Death in County Durham,” Journal of
Medieval History, XV (i989), 127-140; A. Hamilton Thompson, “The Pestilence of the Fourteenth Century in the Diocese of York,” Archaeological Journal, LXXI (1914), 97-I 54; Edward
Augustus Bond (ed.), Chronica mnonasterii de Melsa (Rolls Series, 43, 1868), III, 36-37; A. H.,
Thompson, “Registers ofJohn Gynewell, Bishop of Lincoln, for the Years 1347-1350,” Archaeological Journal, LXVIII (1911), 300-360.
4 E. M. Thompson, Avesbury, 407; Martin, Knighton, 98-99; E. M. Thompson (ed.),
Chronica Galfridi le Baker de Swynebroke (Oxford, 1899), 98-99.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:55 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
374 JOHN THEILMANN AND FRANCES CATE
marily from accounts of clerical vacancies, Inquisition
tem, and tenancy records. As Hatcher demonstrates,
and manorial records are not without flaws; converti
into death rates or replacement rates from inheritance
poses substantial difficulties. Nonetheless, as he also in
records can give an indication of population trends. D
varied widely from region to region. In the diocese o
example, the average mortality rate among the se
ranged from 27 percent in some areas to a high of 61
disease hit the secular clergy particularly hard, as it did t
ants of such regions as East Anglia. Based on an ana
London elite, Megson argues that at least 35 percent
population died in the first outbreak and probably mo
mortality of all classes was taken into account.5
Death rates among the peasantry are more scarce
variable. Razi computes a death rate of between 40
cent, with a peak in June, July, and August 1349, for
Halesowen in Worchestershire. Benedictow argues
clerical vacancies understates mortality rates; the poo
more likely to die from the plague than other English
of greater exposure to the disease, poor living con
weakened immunity from poor diet. He sets England
rate at 62.5 percent, although he does not ascribe all de
to the plague. Benedictow’s seeming precision is su
many as half of the English population might have
plague outbreak.6
The Black Death remained endemic in England t
the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth century. A
5 Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death (Woodbridge, 2004), 27, 32, provid
discussion regarding the various sources of medieval mortality information
“Mortality in the Fifteenth Century: Some New Evidence,” Economic Histor
(1986), 20; E. H. Thompson, “Pestilence in York,” 11-113. The situation in
with a clerical mortality rate of 36% among the clergy of Coventry and
R. A. Davies, “The Effect of the Black Death on the Parish Priests of the Me
of Coventry and Lichfield,” Historical Research, LXII (1989), 87. Robert S
Black Death (New York, 1983), 65; J. L. Fisher, “The Black Death in Essex
view, LII (1943), 12-20; John Aberth, “The Black Death in the Diocese of E
of the Bishop’s Register, “Journal of Medieval History, XXI (1995), 275-287;
“Mortality Among London Citizens in the Black Death,” Medieval Prosopogra
125.
6 Zvi Razi, Life, Marriage and Death in a Medieval Parish (New York, I98o), I02-104;
Benedictow, Black Death, 262, 368, 377.
This content downloaded from
138.237.15.90 on Fri, 28 Apr 2023 21:39:55 +00:00
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
A PLAGUE OF PLAGUES 375
in 1361 was labeled “the children’s plague” due to
rate of children. Other outbreaks followed in 1374
boys and adolescents were reportedly most affecte
The extant plague treatises came from the cont
of them seem to have derived from John of Burg
1365. John of Burgundy was a physician from Lieg
a short manual specifying causes of the plague, as
forms of treatment. The later accounts based on it
forthcoming about symptoms, concentrating more
and remedy. In any case, no specifically English p
appear to exist.8
English sources present an imperfect record of t
and progress of the disease known as the great
even the addition of continental accounts provides
information about it. The extent of our knowledge
ease was perceived as killing large numbers of p
months, that it did not discriminate by social class
that it often took the apparently healthy, though
peared to st…
Purchase answer to see full
attachment

We offer the bestcustom writing paper services. We have done this question before, we can also do it for you.

Why Choose Us

  • 100% non-plagiarized Papers
  • 24/7 /365 Service Available
  • Affordable Prices
  • Any Paper, Urgency, and Subject
  • Will complete your papers in 6 hours
  • On-time Delivery
  • Money-back and Privacy guarantees
  • Unlimited Amendments upon request
  • Satisfaction guarantee

How it Works

  • Click on the “Place Order” tab at the top menu or “Order Now” icon at the bottom and a new page will appear with an order form to be filled.
  • Fill in your paper’s requirements in the "PAPER DETAILS" section.
  • Fill in your paper’s academic level, deadline, and the required number of pages from the drop-down menus.
  • Click “CREATE ACCOUNT & SIGN IN” to enter your registration details and get an account with us for record-keeping and then, click on “PROCEED TO CHECKOUT” at the bottom of the page.
  • From there, the payment sections will show, follow the guided payment process and your order will be available for our writing team to work on it.