Post-classical history



ONE third of a country’s population cannot be eliminated over a period of some two and a half years without considerable dislocation to its economy and its social structure. The historian must expect to find conspicuous changes in the life of the English community in the years immediately following the Black Death. At least some trace of the scars will survive into the succeeding decades or even centuries. But exactly what these changes were and how great was their significance has been the subject of bitter and protracted debate. The subject is far from being closed today.

The great eighteenth and nineteenth-century historians paid little attention to the Black Death as a force in English history. Hume, in his eight volumes covering the period from the Roman Conquest to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, devoted to the plague one paragraph of sixteen lines.1Henry, in twelve volumes, could manage only fourteen lines.2 Green at least gave it a page and a half and admitted that it had some social consequences but even his treatment was somewhat cursory and he obscurely secreted the passage in a chapter entitled ‘The Peasants’ Revolt’.3 Given such conspicuous omissions, it was natural that later historians should celebrate with some exuberance their rediscovery of the Black Death. ‘The year of the conception of modern man was the year 1348, the year of the Black Death,’ wrote Friedell.4 It was as significant a phenomenon as the Industrial Revolution, claimed G. M. Trevelyan, though the latter was less striking in its effects since it was not, like the plague, ‘a fortuitous obstruction fallen across the river of life and temporarily diverting it.’5

The classic exposition of the Black Death’s role in England as a social force of the first importance comes from that great medievalist, Thorold Rogers.6 Many of his conclusions have now been challenged, and challenged with justification, but for breadth of learning, originality of mind and happiness of phrasing he stands far above most of those who have corrected him. ‘The effect of the Plague’, he wrote, ‘was to introduce a complete revolution in the occupation of the land.’ His contention, in grossly over-simplified form, was that commutation, that is to say the substitution of wages and rent in monetary terms for the labour services owed by the villein to the lord, was already well advanced by the time of the Black Death. The sudden disappearance of so high a proportion of the labour force meant that those who already worked for wages were able to demand an increase while those who had not yet achieved this status agitated to commute their services and share in the benefits enjoyed by freemen. If the landlord refused, conditions were peculiarly propitious for the villein to slip away and seek a more amenable master elsewhere.

The landlord was thus in a weak position. Finding himself forced to pay higher wages and obtaining lower prices for his produce because of the reduced demand, he increasingly tended to break up his demesne and let it off for a cash rent to the freemen or villeins of his manor. But he did not succumb without a fight and Parliament came to his rescue with legislation designed to check increased wages and the free movement of labour. The landlords sought to put back the clock and not only to hold on to the relatively few feudal services which still existed but to exact others which had been waived in the period before the Black Death while labour was cheap and plentiful. The result was resentment on the part of the serfs which simmered angrily for thirty years and finally erupted in 1381 in the shape of the Peasants’ Revolt.

This sequence of events is plausible and convincing. On the basis of the information available to Thorold Rogers it is, indeed, easy to accept that no more satisfactory pattern of development could have been constructed to bridge the gap between the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt. His information, however, proved to be far from complete. Subsequent research has demonstrated conclusively that things did not happen according to his tidy scheme. But when it comes to deciding what actually did happen, the impressive unanimity of the historian is significantly less evident. And, within the framework of this problem, the importance to be attached to the Black Death as a factor in the system’s disintegration, is far from being definitively established.

Before outlining the counter-arguments which the critics of Thorold Rogers have put forward it would be useful to restate three general considerations, illustrations of which have already been cited at many points but which must constantly be borne in mind if the effects of the Black Death are to be seen in proper perspective. The first of these is that the damage done by the epidemics of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century was cumulative. The epidemic of 1348 was certainly the most devastating and, being the first, by far the best remembered, but further outbreaks occurred in 1361, 1368–9, 1371, 1375, 1390 and 1405.7

On the whole these were progressively less violent but the second epidemic of 1361, by any standards other than those of the Black Death, was catastrophic in its dimensions. The progressive depopulation of England which resulted from this sequence of epidemics, as each new generation was attacked before it had made good the losses of the last, was economically and psychologically a depressive quite as dangerous as the holocaust of the Black Death itself. One authority, indeed, has gone so far as to say that the ‘most important consequence of the Black Death in fact was simply that the disease was firmly established in England’.8

Whenever, therefore, the question arises of the responsibility of the Black Death for any marked change in England – as in the evolution of some new social form or a decline in wealth or population – unless the comparison is strictly between the period before 1348 and the period between 1351 and 1361, then two and not one epidemics have got to be taken into account. If the comparison is made with the state of affairs at some date near the end of the fourteenth century then the problem of responsibilities becomes still more difficult to resolve since three or four epidemics had, by then, taken their toll, as well, of course, as all the other factors which may have contributed to the transformation. It is not uncommon to find that a certain village had, say, fifty-five land holders in 1310 and only thirty in 1377 and for the deduction to be drawn that the Black Death must therefore have been responsible for almost halving the population. It may have been. Almost certainly it was the most important single factor. But in the absence of evidence which will show exactly when and why the drop in numbers took place the contention must remain unproven. Reservations of this kind are still more important when the problem relates not to a fall in population but to a switch from one kind of land-holding to another or to some other social problem.

The second point to remember is that some signs of the decline of the economy were already evident before 1348. No graph could be charted to show the point which the process had by then reached nor was there any consistency between one area and another. But for at least twenty-five years before the Black Death exports, agricultural production, the area of cultivated land and possibly also the population had all been shrinking. In assessing the baleful effects of the Black Death these earlier difficulties must never be forgotten. Continued deterioration in the state of England – and, indeed, of Europe – would have been likely, even if it had never occurred.

Thirdly and finally, the economic impact of the Black Death was to some extent blunted by the fact that England, even though by 1348 there may already have been some decline, was still grossly over-populated. By this it is not meant that the population was greater than the land could support, though this can and has been argued,9 but merely that the working population had expanded far beyond the work available. In the economic conditions of the fourteenth century this led to chronic under-employment rather than unemployment. Vinogradoff has pointed out that each virgate often had as many as five men working or living on it so that the villein’s land could be tended, the service rendered to the lord and a comfortable surplus of labouring capacity still be left unconsumed.10 Maitland’s contention that the landlord was exacting only about half the labour services owed to him, amply confirmed by Miss Levett in her study of the manors of the Bishop of Winchester,11 is another illustration of this point. It was not through any generosity on the part of the landlord that these services were remitted but nther because there were by so far too many villeins available to do the work that the landlord would have found it quite impossible to employ them all.

This surplus of labour was not confined to the peasants. The lowest computation of the number of priests then available to serve the 8,670 parishes of England is fifteen thousand. For a population of 4.2 million this would give an allowance of one priest for every two hundred and eighty parishioners or more or less every sixty-seven families. Dr Coulton estimates12 that, even in January 1349, there must have been three priests surviving to fill every two priestly vacancies. Unless so generous a margin existed it would be impossible to explain how, throughout the plague, almost every vacant benefice was filled within a few weeks.

Bearing these factors in mind, it remains to consider whether the Black Death did indeed bring about as fundamental a revolution in land tenure and social organization as has been suggested. There is, of course, much that is incontestably true in the thesis. Among the phenomena which Thorold Rogers noted as being particularly relevant were the rise in the level of wages and of prices and the greatly increased mobility of labour. Though regional variations existed, these were variations of degree and duration rather than kind. In every part of England for which evidence exists the tendencies were to be seen.

‘The immediate effect of the Plague,’ wrote Rogers, ‘was to double the wages of labour; in some districts to raise the rate even beyond this.’13 In Cuxham, a ploughman paid 2s. per annum before the plague earned 7s. in 1349–50 and as much as 10s. 6d. in 1350–51.14 (These figures are, in fact, not so conspicuously out of line with those of Rogers as at first appears since they ignore certain variations of payment in kind which, if they could be expressed in monetary terms, would certainly go a long way towards reducing the real figures for 1350–51 to about half the apparent total. Two shillings per annum was, of course, an inconsiderable element in the ploughman’s total remuneration.) In Teddington and Paddington wages were doubled in the first year.15 Rogers’s own figures show that a thresher who had been paid 2½d. a day in 1348 earned 6d. in 1349 and 4½d. in 1350, while a mower received 5d. an acre in 1348 but increased this to 9d. in 1349 and 1350.16

All this supports the thesis that wages more or less doubled. But not all evidence points to so sharp an increase. In her examination of the manors of the Bishop of Winchester, Professor Levett found that in some, though by no means all cases, wages rose by between a quarter and a third17while Lord Beveridge was able to detect only minor increases in another group of the Bishop’s manors18 but a jump of more than 75 per cent in the wages paid on the estate of the Abbot of Westminster19 But even though Rogers’s estimate may be on the generous side as an average for the whole of England, it is clear that wages rose rapidly and substantially and imposed a heavy burden on any landlord who depended largely on paid labour to farm his demesne.

Professor Rogers and the other proponents of his theories are also undoubtedly right in saying that prices of agricultural products fell steeply during and directly after the Black Death; thus making still more troublesome the life of the landlord. Lack of demand was, of course, the prime cause. Knighton’s complaint that ‘a man could buy for half a mark a horse which formerly had been worth forty shillings’,20 has already been mentioned. Rogers has shown that oxen which fetched 13s. 7d. in 1347 and 10s. 6d. in 1348, were sold for only 6s. 8d. in 1349. A cow fell in value from 9s. to 6s. 6d. and a sheep from 2s. 2d. in 1347 to 1s. 5d. in 1348, is. 4d. in 1349 and 1s. 3d. in 1350. Poultry seem more or less to have maintained their prices and corn did reasonably well because of a poor harvest in 1349, but the price of wool was lower than at any other time in the fourteenth century. Against this, the cost of manufactured products, many of which the landlord would have had to buy, tended to rise steeply because of difficulties of transport and of the death rate among the skilled artisans who, unlike the agricultural workers, had no pool of surplus labour ready to fill the gaps. Every one knew how to cut hay but few indeed were competent to make a nail. The price of canvas rose from 2s. 3½d. in 1347 to 2s. 9d. in 1349 and 4s. 3d. in 1350; a bushel of salt which cost 4⅝d. in 1347 could not be bought for less than is. 2d. in 1350; iron jumped from 8s. 6d. to over a pound for twenty-five pieces.21

The landlord was to some extent sheltered against these difficulties by the extra income which accrued in 1349 and 1350 from the entry fines levied on the estates of the dead before the heir was allowed to take them over and the cattle which were collected as heriots, a form of death duty paid in kind. But this was a once-and-for-all increment and, anyway, often had to be waived in cases where no heir survived or the survivor could not afford to pay the fine. Heriots, indeed, could be an embarrassment. In Farnham where fines rose from under £20 to over £100, the reeve was forced to take on extra meadows and engage more labour because it was impossible to dispose of the influx of cattle at a reasonable price.22

Professor Rogers’s third point is no less valid. There was undoubtedly greater mobility of labour during and directly after the Black Death and any landlord unready to make concessions to his tenants might well find that they had vanished to seek a kindlier master. The case of the tenants of the manor of Woodeaton who ‘would have departed had not Brother Nicholas of Upton, then Abbot, made an agreement with them …’23 has already been mentioned. At Forncett, in the generation succeeding the Black Death, over half the customers’ tenements and a quarter of the sokemen’s reverted to the lady of the manor because of the death or flight of the sitting tenants and were subsequently relet at a money rent.24 Some of those who fled turned up a little later on neighbouring manors, others disappeared altogether, either to farms in more distant parts or, perhaps, to make a new life in the rapidly expanding cloth trade.25 A Lincolnshire ploughman refused to serve except by the day and unless he had fresh meat instead of salt. When he could not get what he wanted, his retort was to disappear and offer his services elsewhere.26

It would be pointless to multiply such instances. The proof that labour was on the move is provided by the energetic efforts which the Government made to check it. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 and the subsequent Statute of Labourers in 1351 were, interalia, a direct attempt to prevent workmen transferring their loyalties from one employer to another. Except for the application of the statute to freeman as well as bond there was nothing sensationally new in this. The most interesting feature, indeed, was that it had proved necessary to pass a statute at all and, incidentally, to set up complicated and expensive administrative machinery to enforce it. ‘The statue of labourers’, wrote Dr Putnam, ‘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.’27 Perhaps the most radical of these changes was the new desire, even determination on the part of the medieval labourer to have a say in deciding his terms of employment and to seek his fortune elsewhere if such a right were denied him.

It is no more possible to dispute that these phenomena existed than it is to doubt Rogers’s contention that the landlord – unable to hire labour except at greatly increased wages, unable to get a good price for his products or to buy what he needed for the farm except at exorbitant cost; unable to enforce his manorial rights because the villeins fled when he attempted to – was sorely tempted to abandon the struggle altogether. His remedy was to let off the demesne to the tenants for a cash rent in units small enough for them to farm themselves. To take only one example; in the bailiwick of Clare, on one manor at least, all new leases made after 1349 were for money without labour, leases of the demesne lands became common from 1360 onwards and, by 1380, the greater part of the demesne had passed out of the lord’s possession.28 The Black Death introduced a situation in which land was plentiful and labour scarce. The scales were thereby tipped against the land owner.

It is the peculiar virtue of English society that it contrives permanently to remain in a state of transition; no sooner has it crossed one bridge than it is off on its uncertain course across the next one. Sometimes, indeed, it tries to cross two at once. It would thus be hazardous to argue that England in the fourteenth century was more conspicuously in transition than at any other period but, certainly, it would be hard to find an age in which the change was more fundamental. The pattern of several centuries was breaking up; not only the pattern of society but the set of men’s minds as well.

‘Increasingly, the really significant distinction’, wrote Dr McKisack, ‘is less between free and servile than between winner and waster, between the man whose fortunes are on the upgrade, whose descendants may well swell the ranks of the yeomanry and gentry of a later age, and the man whom economic pressure or lack of enterprise are driving downwards.’29

The moment, therefore, was one of great fluidity. In such circumstances even a mild contretemps can produce disproportionately sharp reactions. The consequences of any more severe shock are likely to be intensely violent. Few shocks can have been more violent than that caused by the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.


We can thus safely agree with Rogers that the Black Death must have led to important changes in the social and economic structure of the country. We can accept too the existence of the phenomena which Rogers noted and on which he based his thesis. But now begin the qualifications. In medieval history, it seems, it is not the exception which proves the rule but the rule which generates the exception. A useful principle can be established which may, in memory of that great iconoclast, Dr A. E. Levett, be described as Levett’s law: ‘The enunciation of any authoritative statement shall immediately be countered by the accumulation of evidence leading to its contradiction.’ Once a sufficient body of such material has been compiled then, of course, a new statement is deemed to have been advanced and the work of destruction can change its target.

So, as soon as Thorold Rogers had won general acceptance for his thesis of a Black Death causing profound social changes and leading directly to the Peasants’ Revolt, evidence began to be elicited to prove him wrong. He had argued, it will be remembered, that commutation was already far advanced by 1348, and that it was above all the efforts of the landlords to reverse this process which led to social unrest. As a first stage in the demolition of his theories it was demonstrated that commutation had, in fact, made little progress before the plague.

Mr Page30 argued that there were not enough freemen available to do the commuted labours. Even if there had been, the amount of money in circulation would not have been sufficient to pay them or to allow the former villeins to pay their rents in cash. He analysed the sources of labour on a group of eighty-one manors spread over twenty counties for the period 1325–50. On rather over half these, villeins did nearly all the work on the lord’s demesne, on twenty-two of them they did about half, on nine an insignificant amount and on only six had predial service been abolished altogether. A similar analysis for the year 1380 of a group of one hundred and twenty-six manors, of which fifty-five had been included in the earlier examination, showed that the villeins did all the work on only twenty-two, about half the work on twenty-five, an insignificant amount on thirty-nine while on the remaining forty no predial services at all survived. A dramatic transformation had clearly taken place in the intervening years, vindication of the statement made by Pollock and Maitland: ‘… it was the Black Death which, by destroying nearly half the population while leaving the available capital and the medium of exchange as great as ever, hastened the transition from a system of barter to a system of money payments.’31 Furthermore, on no manor did Page find evidence of any villein being held to service after the Black Death if this had not also been the case before.

Studies of this nature certainly contradicted the conclusions of Thorold Rogers but tended to increase rather than diminish the significance of the Black Death. Page’s conclusions were not for long suffered to remain uncontested. Sir Keith Feiling conducted a closer analysis of one of his selected manors and pointed out that several of the leases for money rent on which Page based his case were in fact short term only and were later replaced by leases based on the old scale of rents and services. Several categories of manorial services were definitely more onerous by 1362 than they had been before the Black Death. Two and a half opera minuta were commuted in 1341–2, 181 in 1353–4, 285½ in 1354–5, 77 in 1358–9 and none in 1362–3.32 On this manor at least, therefore, the pattern was not one of a process of commutation initiated by the Black Death and swelling triumphantly to its near completion at the end of the fourteenth century, but rather of a false start directly after the Black Death which was soon checked and reversed bythe victorious landlord.

The next salvo came from Dr H. L. Gray33 whose techniques have been much criticized but whose signally useful if modest contribution was to rationalize and codify the doctrine that any generalization was futile if it professed to apply to the whole of England. Based on his study of inquisitions post-mortem he claimed that, in the North and West of England, services had nearly always been commuted before the Black Death; in the South and East full or, at least, a large number of services were still exacted in about half the manors while in Kent, serfdom had died out at a much earlier date. It is hardly necessary to point out how quickly examples were forthcoming to show that generalizations were hardly more valid when applied to areas such as the North or the South, than to the country as a whole. But as a rough and ready rule, the value of Gray’s analysis remains considerable.

Dr Levett has provided the weightiest evidence against the presentation of the Black Death as a watershed in English social history. She has shown that, on many of the manors of the Bishop of Winchester, commutation was hardly known before the Black Death and that there was remarkably little change introduced in the years immediately afterwards. When William of Wykeham did begin to indulge in substantial commutation of services against money payments it was more to raise money for his projects at New College and Winchester than because of pressures generated by the Black Death.34 Her statistics are impressive but against them it can be contended that the experience of manors belonging to rich, powerful and conservative churchmen need not necessarily be applicable even to other manors in the same neighbourhood, let alone to the country as a whole.

Nor did her findings apply even to all the manors of the Bishop. A companion study of the Manor of Witney reaches remarkably different conclusions.35 In that manor, two thirds of the population died, much land was thrown on to the lord’s hands and had to be let on new terms and for a money rent, the landlord gradually abandoned the struggle to farm the demesne and, having no further use for labour services, willingly commuted them for cash. The number of villeins employed at harvest-time dwindled from one hundred and twenty-one in 1348 to twenty-eight in 1350, rose again to forty-two in 1352, but by 1354 had only reached forty-eight. All new tenants were excused tenurial labour and the whole system quickly withered away. Similarly, on the estates of Ramsey Abbey, the Black Death heralded the introduction of a new style of rent involving a larger cash payment, but the disappearance of all, or virtually all villein services.36

To take another example in which the landlord similarly enjoyed enough wealth and influence to ride almost any economic storm; at Cuxham, a manor of the College of Merton, prior to the Black Death well over half the work on the demesne was done by the famuli, labour attached to the manor and living within its compound. Two thirds of the rest was done by customary labour and only a third by hired labour. The proportion of work done by the wage-earner actually dropped in the seventy years between 1276 and 1347 – the period during which, according to Thorold Rogers, commutation was rapidly gaining ground all over England. After the Black Death labour services virtually ceased and work done by the famuli was halved. Total work done on the demesne was reduced but the cost of hired labour nevertheless trebled. In 1361, Merton College decided to lease the manor rather than continue to run it at a loss.37

In some parts of England, therefore, the Black Death was a sharp stimulus towards rapid and lasting commutation of manorial services, in others it gave rise to much commutation but the landlords were able to check the process and more or less restore the statusquo ante, in yet others it had little perceptible effect on the manorial structure and, finally, in a few it impelled the landlords into a reaction which sought to resurrect labour services that had long been suffered to fall into disuse. The more prosperous and stable manors were the least affected; where the land was poor, the landlord ineffective, or the disease raged with especial violence, then the consequence was likely to be a rapid growth in commutation. It would be impossible to estimate in how many cases this development was something entirely new and in how many the process was already under way. Professor Postan has argued in favour of a rapid move towards commutation in the twelfth century which slackened or even went into reverse in the course of the thirteenth.38 However that may be, it is reasonable to contend that commutation was well known in most parts of England before 1348, and that the Black Death did no more than accelerate, though often violently accelerate, an established and, in the long run, inevitable progress.


What of the other economic and social effects of the Black Death which Thorold Rogers maintained did so much radically to change the manorial system and lead towards the Peasants’ Revolt? Wages and prices of manufactured goods certainly rose sharply after the Black Death but this rise was not maintained. Nor was the fall in the value of agricultural products. Almost all the examples cited earlier to illustrate the dramatic effects of the plague can also be used to show how quickly the effects passed. But for the most part they did not pass altogether. Particularly in the case of wages a very real advantage was won and retained by the labourer in almost every part of England. The ploughman of Cuxham whose pay had risen from 2s. to 10s. 6d. was still earning 6s. 3d. in 1351–2 and 7s. 6d. over the period 1353–9. In Teddington and Paddington, wages fell back sharply in 1351–2 but remained well above the figure for before the plague.39 Thorold Rogers’s thresher, whose wage averaged 3⅛d. in the first half of the century, earned 4⅛d. in the second half while the carpenter’s wages rose from 3⅛d. to 4⅝d.40 The rise in the cost of living took away some of the wage earner’s advantage but his rent, probably the most important item in his budget, if it increased at all, certainly did not do so as substantially as his income. His net advantage was almost always considerable. Post hoc is not necessarily propter hoc, but it would be ultra-cautious not to admit that the Black Death was a major factor in the process.

Prices of agricultural produce seem on the whole to have more than regained their level within a year or two of the end of the plague, though they lagged behind the index for wages. Taking the two ten-year periods of 1341 to 1350 and 1351 to 1360, wheat, barley and other grains rose by up to 30 per cent, but the price of wool dropped slightly and live-stock varied so wildly as to make any deduction virtually impossible. Oxen fetched about 15 per cent more but cows about 3 per cent less; sheep substantially more, pigs and cart-horses slightly less; pullets and ducks more but hens, geese and cocks less. The price of manufactured goods, on the other hand, dropped back a little from the abnormally high level of the years of the Black Death and immediately after but still remained well above the pre-plague average. Salt, which cost 6¼d. the bushel the decade before the plague, cost 10½d. between 1351 and 1360. Iron varied according to type but all types cost more and some increased threefold. Clouts almost doubled in price while canvas leapt from 2s. 5d. for the dozen ells to 6s. 5d.

In so far then as it can be assumed that the Black Death was primarily responsible for the altogether exceptional trend of wages and prices between 1340 and 1360 – and such an assumption can surely be safely made – then it is clear that it did the landlord little good and much harm. Even if he managed to maintain agricultural production at its previous level, he could expect to receive little more 2nd perhaps even less for his produce while having to pay substantially more for his labour and his imported articles. Wool, by far the most important crop produced for sale rather than consumption, actually brought the farmer a smaller return in the decades after the plague than before 1349. The blow was not economically devastating except, perhaps, in 1350 and 1351 and, during these years there was usually extra income from other sources to sustain the landlord. But it was certainly painful enough to provide a powerful disincentive to anyone wondering whether or not to carry on the farming of his demesne.


Thorold Rogers’s argument rested above all on the hypothesis that the Black Death so far reduced the population that those who remained were placed in an immeasurably stronger position when it came to bargaining with an employer. In the short term – that is to say in 1349, 1350 and 1351 – this was of course true. If a third of the peasants of a given area disappeared within a few months then, whatever the reserves in labour, there was bound to be serious dislocation. But provided the labour reserve was great enough – and it has already been argued that it was substantial41– then an adjustment of resources to needs was bound, in time, to put the matter right. In some areas the process of adjustment would be relatively simple; in others, where the Black Death did its worst damage, it would be painful and protracted. But in the end it would be done.

Again and again in the patchwork of horror stories which composes our knowledge of the Black Death one of the most striking features has been the speed of recovery shown by the medieval community. In all the manors of the Bishop of Winchester which she studied, Dr Levett found only a very few where tenements remained vacant for more than a few years. On the estates of Crowland Abbey, where eighty-eight holdings were left empty, all but nine of these were quickly taken up; not by peasants from other villages who might have deserted land elsewhere and so left another gap to fill but by people with names already known on the manor who, one must presume, were landless residents before the plague. The estate of the Abbey, in fact, had sufficient surplus of man-power to fill even the huge vacuum left by the plague. At Cuxham, nine out of thirteen half-virgates were still vacant by March 1352 and in this case recourse was had to importing tenants from outside the manor. Within another three years all the vacancies were filled. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that this was an easy or painless process, or that all areas recovered so completely. At Standon, for instance, one of the worst affected manors of the Earls of March, many tenements stood unoccupied until 1370. Even in the less depopulated areas the balance between work to be done and labour available was bound to be more precarious than in the past. England had consumed her fat and it was going to be far more difficult for it to recover a second time if any fresh strain were imposed.

Such a strain was to be imposed with the second epidemic of bubonic plague in 1361. In the meantime, however, the relatively light incidence of the Black Death among the generations most likely to bear children coupled with the new wealth and economic opportunities released by the great mortality, had produced an unusually high birth rate in the intervening years. A monk of Malmesbury, it is true, remarked that, ‘the women who survived remained for the most part barren during several years’,42 but the evidence for the statement is obscure. At the most it can be taken as applying only to the period at the end of and immediately after the epidemic when the sense of shock was still in the forefront of men’s minds and they might have deemed procreation offensive to the Almighty. Obviously by 1361 the children of the post-plague years were not yet competent to undertake the work done by their deceased uncles and cousins, but numerically at least the recovery had begun. It was only after 1360, and still more in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, that depopulation began substantially to change the face of England.


Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far more amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work. It is only fair to say, however, that on most manors there was little to stop a villein escaping even before 1349. He probably had only to step over a brook or cross some invisible demarcation line to put himself beyond the reach of his master except through complicated and usually expensive legal processes. Given that the landlord was likely to have had more than enough labour on his estate already, it was unlikely that he would pursue his recreant villein with any vigour. ‘It cannot be urged too often’, wrote Vinogradoff,43 ‘that the real guarantee against a dispersion of the peasantry lay in the general fairness of the conditions in which it was placed.’

After the Black Death many villeins, viewing enviously the high wages earned by those no longer bound to render predial services, began to think that the conditions in which they were placed were no longer generally fair. Rogers is therefore surely justified in his belief that the Black Death was a stimulus towards greater mobility of labour and hence towards the disintegration of the manorial system. But the legislation which this new mobility provoked to counter it went far towards nullifying this result. For a long time it was accepted doctrine that the Ordinance of Labourers and the subsequent Statute of Labourers were dead letters from the start; ignored by the labourers and treated with indifference or contempt even by the employers themselves. Knighton, with his categoric statement: ‘Labourers were so elated and contentious that they did not pay attention to the command of the King’,44 was perhaps the father of this thesis, but the vision of the sturdy British peasant standing up stoutly to any interference with his liberties by wicked barons or cold-hearted bureaucrats was calculated to appeal irresistibly to any Whiggish historian. The laws should have failed and therefore they did fail.

It is hard to reconcile this sympathetic doctrine with the facts. The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus to check the inflation that existed in the England of 1349–51. The Government realized that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers. By restricting the right of an employee to leave his place of work, by compelling him to accept work when it was offered him, by forbidding the employer to offer wages greater than those paid three years before, by making illegal the gift of alms to the able-bodied unemployed and, finally, by fixing the prices which butchers, bakers and fishmongers could charge their customers, they hoped to recreate the conditions that pertained before the plague and maintain them for ever. The statute of 1351 took this one stage farther by codifying the wages of labourers and artisans.

This was, of course, a hopeless quest. But, though any analogy to the twentieth century would be ridiculous, it must be admitted that, as prices and incomes policies go, the fourteenth-century freeze was remarkably successful. Between 1349 and 1359 six hundred and seventy-one men were appointed to enforce the statutes. Though the bulk of the prosecutions were inevitably of offending peasants, the employer did not escape entirely. Dr Putnam records cases of one employer prosecuted for ‘eloigning’ the servant of another with an offer of high wages, a rector prosecuted for paying his household servants too much and a reeve for hiring reapers in a public place at an illegal rate.45 On the whole the statutes were not imposed with seventy, whether against employer or employed. Imprisonment was extremely rare and fines for the most part moderate. The result is self-evident. Within a few years wages and prices had fallen back; not indeed to the pre-plague level, but at least to a point well below their maximum. Governmental action cannot be given all the credit for this; it is probable that there would anyhow have been a reaction once the immediate shock of the Black Death had worn off. But equally it seems unreasonable to dismiss as a total failure legislation which, in fact, achieved most of what it set out to do.

In defence of the statutes it can be said that, though loaded heavily against the peasant, they were not conceived solely as instruments for his repression. Certainly, in part, they were inspired by the fear that labour would get out of control but also they reflected a genuine wish to prevent the wealthy land-owner or industrialist drawing away labour from his weaker rival.46 They can, therefore, be presented as seeking to protect, if not the poor, at least the not-so-rich. But any legislation which imposes a maximum but no minimum wage and which expects the baker – whose interest it is to see prices rise – and the farmer – whose interest it is to see wages fall – to respond in the same way to legislation suggesting that both prices and wages should remain as they were, must inevitably discriminate against the poorer classes. The laws may not have been intended to repress but they were administered largely by the land-owners in their own interests. Inevitably it was the labourer who lost. For the most part the statutes did not operate so as to make the labourer worse off than he had been before, but they cut off a line of advance towards a new prosperity which had been opened by the plague. The fact that they were largely successful was an important factor in the compound of national issues and local grievances which was eventually to give rise to the Peasants’ Revolt.


Can it be said therefore, in schoolboy phrase, that the Black Death ‘caused’ the Peasants’ Revolt? The classic thesis that it was the reversal of a far-advanced trend towards commutation which provoked resistance among the peasants must in part at least be rejected. If, on manors as numerous and as scattered as those of the Bishop of Winchester, Dr Levett can find ‘absolutely no sound evidence for retrogression or greater severity in exacting services after 1349’,47 then no generalization which assumes the existence of such retrogression can be wholly valid. Certainly the same is not true in every part of England: there were cases in which peasants were forced back into a servile status from which they had previously escaped. Such cases were undoubtedly resented. But in sum there is no reason to think that these constituted a major, let alone the major, factor in instigating the uprising.

What then did cause a rebellion as determined and as wide-spread as that of 1381? Petit-Dutaillis, who may be said to have spear-headed the attack on the established point of view, considered that it was a compound of irritating feudal burdens, mainly in the form of financial exactions, and the clumsy tax policy of the royal advisers. ‘The contradiction which existed between their legal state and their economic advancement was evidently a source of daily exasperation.’48 Professor Hilton, who saw the genesis of the Peasants’ Revolt at the very beginning of the thirteenth century, has analysed the factors which led to unrest.49 Many of them, it will be obvious, were active irritants long before 1348. The undue conservatism of the landlord who sought to preserve the irritating frills as well as the essential spirit of the manorial system, the denial to the peasant of the right to dispose of his chattels, the fact that prices rose faster than wages, the resentment of the villein who saw his free neighbour exploiting the new circumstances to the full, the inequity and uneven incidence of the poll taxes, the abduction of peasants by labour-hungry landlords, the curbs on liberty of action imposed by the new legislation: these were the elements which finally provoked explosion.

But because the Black Death was not an immediate cause it does not follow that it should not bear a large share of the responsibility. If there had been no plague it is arguable that the circumstances which so disturbed society in 1381 would eventually have arisen. The break-down of the structure of a society can never be painless and, by the second half of the fourteenth century, the disintegration of the manorial system was inevitable and already well advanced. But the Black Death immeasurably aided the process; exacerbated existing grievances, heightened contradictions, made economic nonsense of what previously had been a situation difficult but still viable.

‘The Black Death did not, in any strictly economic sense, cause the Peasants’ Revolt or the break-down of villeinage, but it gave birth, in many cases, to a smouldering feeling of discontent, an inarticulate desire for change, which found its outlet in the rising of 1381.’50 Dr Levett’s cautious judgement may be termed the lowest statement of the Black Death’s claim to have inspired the social unrest of the later fourteenth century. It cannot be said, in short, that the Black Death directly caused the Peasants’ Revolt, nor can it be said with certainty that, but for the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt would never have taken place. But what can be asserted with some confidence is that, if there had been no Black Death, tension and bitterness would never have risen by 1381 to the level that it did.


‘We must really not raise the plague to the dignity of a constant, economic force.’51 Vinogradoff’s magisterial warning should be written in scarlet above the desk of every historian dealing with the fourteenth century. But we must really not lower the plague to the level of an isolated phenomenon having no significant influence on the development of the country. The more extravagant claims of its champions may be discounted but so also may the excessive denigration of those who sought to cut it down to size. The extent to which the Black Death can be said to have initiated rather than accelerated or modified any major social or economic trend is the subject of endless academic debate. There is at the moment a sentiment in favour of reinstating the Black Death as a major originating factor in its own right.52 Such a counter-reaction is desirable and, indeed, overdue. It should not be taken too far but it will not have been taken far enough until it is generally accepted that the Black Death was a catalytic element of the first order, profoundly modifying the economic and social forces on which it operated. Without it the history of England and of Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century would have been very different.


1 E. R. Hume, History of England, Vol. II, London, 1796, p.448.

2 R. Henry, The History of Great Britain, Vol. VII, London, 1788, p.246.

3 J. R. Green, History of the English People, Vol. 1, London, 1877, pp.429–30.

4 E. Friedell, Kulturgesicht der Neuzit, Vol. 1, Munich, 1927, p.62.

5 G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History, London, 1942, P. XI.

6 J. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, Vol. 1, Oxford, 1866.

7 Greenwood, Epidemics and Crowd Disease, op. cit., p.291. Cf. J. M. W. Bean, ‘Plague Population and Economic Decline in England in the later Middle Ages’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol. XV, 1963, pp.427–8.

8 R. S. Roberts, ‘The Place of Plague in English History’, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med. (Hist. Med.), Vol. 59, 1966, p.101.

9 Thorold Rogers, for instance, argued that England could not have supported a population of more than 2½ million. Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, pp.191–6.

10 P. Vinogradoff, Review of ‘The End of Villainage in England’ by T. W. Page, Eng. Hist. Rev., Vol. XV, 1900, p.776.

11 A. E. Levett, The Black Death on the Estates of the See of Winchester, Oxford, 1916, p. 63.

12 Black Death, op. cit., p.46.

13 J. T. Rogers, op. cit., p.265.

14 P. D. A. Harvey, A Mediaeval Oxfordshire Village: Cuxham, Oxford, 1965, App. IV.

15 V.C.H. Middlesex, Vol. II, p.80.

16 J. T. Rogers, op. cit., Chapter XV.

17 Levett, op. cit., p.100.

18 W. Beveridge, ‘Wages in the Winchester Manors’, Econ. Hist. Rev., Vol. VII, 1936–7, p.26.

19 W. Beveridge, ‘Westminster Wages in the Manorial Era’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol. VIII, 1955, p.18.

20 Knighton, op. cit., p.62.

21 J. T. Rogers, op. cit., passim.

22 E. Robo, op. cit., p. 149 above.

23 Eynsham Cartulary, op. cit., p.140 above.

24 F. G. Davenport, The Economic Development of a Norfolk Manor, Cambridge, 1906, pp.70–72.

25 E. Lipson, Economic History of England, Vol. 1, London, 1945, p.92.

26 B. H. Putnam, Enforcement of the Statute of Labourers, New York, 1908, p.91.

27 ibid, p.223.

28 G. A. Holmes, The Estates of the Higher Nobility …, op. cit., pp.90–92.

29 M. McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, op. cit., p.324.

30 T. W. Page, ‘The End of Villainage in England’, Publications of the American Economic Association, 3rd Ser., Vol. 1, 1900, p.39.

31 F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, ‘History of English Law’, Eng. Hist. Rev. Vol. I, p.166.

32 K. G. Feiling, ‘An Essex Manor in the 14th Century’, Eng. Hist Rev., Vol. XXVI, 1911, p.333.

33 H. L. Gray, ‘The Commutation of Villain Services in England before the Black Death.’ Eng. Hist. Rev. Vol. XXIX 1914, p.625.

34 A. E. Levett, op. cit., pp.159–60.

35 A. Ballard, The Manors of Witney, Brightwell and Downton, Oxford, 1916, pp.181–204.

36 J. A. Raftis, Estates of Ramsey Abbey, Toronto, 1957, p.251.

37 P. D. A. Harvey, op. cit., p.85.

38 M. Postan, ‘The Chronology of Labour Services’, Trans. Roy. Hist. Soc., 4th Ser., Vol XX, 1937, pp. 185–6.

39 V.C.H. Middlesex, Vol. II, p.80.

40 J. T. Rogers, op. cit., Chapter XV.

41 pp.243–4 above.

42 Eulogium (Historiarum sive Temporis), ed. F. S. Haydon, R.S. 9, III, pp.213–14.

43 P. Vinogradoff, Eng. Hist. Rev., Vol. XV, 1900, p.779.

44 Knighton, op. cit., p.64.

45 B. H. Putnam, op. cit., passim.

46 L. F. Salzmann, English Industries of the Middle Ages, London, 1913.

47 A. E. Levett, op. cit., p.134.

48 A. Reville, Le Soulèvement des Travailleurs d’Angleterre en 1381, Paris, 1898. Introduction by C. Petit-Dutaillis, p.XXXVII.

49 R. H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol. II, 1949, p.117.

50 A. E. Levett, op. cit., p.159

51 P. Vinogradoff, Eng. Hist. Rev., Vol. XV, 1900, p.779.

52 e.g. F. Lutge, ‘Das 14/15 Jahrhundert in der Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte’, Jahrbücher f. Nationalökonomie und Statistik, Vol. 162, 1950, pp.161–213; and E. Kelter, ‘Das deutsche Wirtschaftsleben des 14 und 15 Jahrhunderts in Schatten der Pestepidemien’, ibid., Vol. 165, 1953, pp. 161–208.

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