Post-classical history



SUCH modifications of the social structure of the country were bound to find their reflection in almost every sphere of human activity. There can have been very little in English life which survived the Black Death wholly unchanged, though in some fields the changes were at first almost imperceptible and only gradually revealed their true significance.

The world of education, through its dependence on a comparatively small group of learned men of whom the most powerful and distinguished were often also among the oldest, was peculiarly sensitive to the impact of the plague. Mortality among men of learning had been calamitously high. Four of Europe’s thirty universities vanished in the middle of the fourteenth century: no one can be sure that the Black Death was responsible but it would be over-cautious to deny that it must have played a part.1 Arezzo ceased to exist a few years later; Siena closed for several years. The chancellor of Oxford petitioned the King ‘showing that the university is ruined and enfeebled by the pestilence and other causes, so that its estate can hardly be maintained or protected’. The students of Avignon addressed the Pope: ‘… at a time when the university body of your Studium … is deprived of all lectures, since the whole number has been left desolate by the death from pestilence of doctors, licentiates, bachelors and students …’

Into this vacuum there was ample scope for new ideas and doctrines to infiltrate. In England one important by-product, caused in part at least by the shortage of people qualified to teach in French after the Black Death, was the growth of education in the vernacular and of translation from Latin direct to English:2 John Trevisa said of the old system – the translation of Latin to French:

Thys manere was moche y-used tofore the furste moreyn, and ys sethe somdel ychanged. For Johan Cornwall, a mayster of gramere, chayngede the lore in gramer-scole, and construccion of Freynsch into Englysch; and Richard Pencrych lurnede that manere teching of hym, and other men of Pencrych, so that now, the yere of our Lord a thousand, three hundred foure score and fyve … in all the grammer-scoles of England children leaveth Frensch and construeth and lurneth ye Englysch and habbeth thereby avauntage in on syde and desvauntage yn another. Their avauntage ys that they lurneth gramer in lesse tyme than children were i-woned to doo; desavauntage ys that now childern of gramer-scole canneth na more Frensche then can thir lift heale, and that is harme for them an they schulle passe the see and travaille in straunge landes …

Viewing the history of the English language and its literature over the last six hundred years there are few who would deny that John Cornwall, mayster of gramere, deserved well of his country. The disadvantage to which Trevisa refers still exists to trouble us but the fruits of Cornwall’s reform outweigh immeasurably the gulf which it placed between this island and mainland Europe. It would, of course, be absurd to attribute to any individual or to the Black Death itself the full responsibility for a change which had already started even before 1348 and, in the end, would inevitably have carried all before it. But it would also be a mistake to discount unduly the importance of the Black Death in removing so many of those who would have been a barrier to reform and in making it, in purely practical terms, far more difficult to carry on along the old path.

John Cornwall’s innovation was more fundamental than is suggested in Trevisa’s chronicle. For the growth of a literature in the vernacular was bound, in the end, to mean the disappearance of Latin as a medium of communication. It took an unconscionably long time a-dying; vestigial relics are, indeed, still said to linger on in England today in certain of the more antique seats of learning. But its monopoly was broken. English arose; the symbol of a new nationalism, to take its place in the law courts as the instrument for the transaction of business and for the conduct of relationships even in the most polite society. It was nationalism that dictated the use of English rather than the use of English which created nationalism, but the two fostered each other and grew side by side. Neither the growth of a national language nor of a national spirit can be said to be a uniquely English phenomenon. The sort of generalization with which we are dealing here could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to what we now mean by France, Italy or Germany. But nowhere else was the evolution so pronounced or the relevance of the Black Death so clearly marked.

‘We must not think’, wrote Dr Pantin,3 ‘that “nationalism” was something invented at the Renaissance or even in the later middle ages … since the eleventh century there had been highly organized “national” states and deep political and racial divisions and rivalries and antipathies …’ One must not give the Black Death too much prominence in an evolution which has edged forward fitfully over many centuries, yet it would be quite as foolish to ignore its role and it is surely permissible, too, to see its by-products in the field of learning as one of the more decisive catalytic factors. In England too, it was more immediately apparent that the weakening of the international language was a blow to the universal Church. It would be a grotesque over-statement to claim that, if the English had continued to speak French and write Latin, there would have been no Reformation, but, like most over-statements, it would contain some elements of truth.

In the long run the English Universities had no cause to regret the temporary havoc which the plague caused in their workings. The shortage of clergy and lay clerks was so conspicuous that the provision of replacements became an urgent need. At Cambridge the reaction was swift. Trinity Hall, Gonville Hall and Corpus Christi were all founded as a consequence, Corpus Christi, at least, as a direct consequence of the Black Death. In the deed of 6 February 1350 by which Bishop Bateman established Trinity Hall it was specifically laid down that the purpose of the new college was to make good the appalling losses which the clergy in England and, in particular, East Anglia had suffered. The motives for founding Corpus Christi were slightly less altruistic. The members of the trade guilds found that, with the shortage of clergy after the plague, it cost them too much to have masses said for their departed members. By establishing a college they calculated that they would acquire a plentiful supply of cheap labour among the students. So deep a scar did the plague leave that even in 1441, at the foundation of King’s, the statutes, though in general terms, reiterated a reference to the need to repair the ravages of a century before.4

Oxford was somewhat slower off the mark. It took ten years and a second attack of the plague to induce Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to follow Bishop Bateman’s lead. ‘… I, Simon… in view of the fact that in particular those who are truly learned and accomplished in every kind of learning have been largely exterminated in the epidemics, and that, because of the lack of opportunity, very few are coming forward at present to carry on such studies …’ heartily support a gift of money made to my ‘new college of Canterbury at Oxford.’5

Similarly, a few years later, William of Wykeham, wishing to cure ‘the general disease of the clerical army, which we have observed to be grievously wounded owing to the small number of the clergy, as a result of pestilences, wars and other miseries of the world’6 founded New College to repair the deficiency. But New College owed more to the Black Death than the inspiration for its creation. According to tradition, backed by Thorold Rogers,7 New College garden was the site of Oxford’s largest plague pit, an area formerly covered by houses but depopulated by the epidemic and converted to its grisly purpose. The ill wind also blew good to Merton College since the sharp drop in population allowed it to buy, at a bargain price, almost all the land between the City Wall and St Frideswides; an investment whose increasing value must have done much to solace future generations for the tribulations of their ancestors.


It would have been extraordinary if the striking changes which the Black Death had helped to evolve in the relationship between landlord and tenant had not produced perceptible results in the practice of agriculture and even the appearance of the English countryside. The crucial consequence of the epidemic was that much land fell free and that the lord not only did not wish to farm it himself but was often anxious to divest himself even of that part of the land which had formed part of his demesne before 1348. The tenements of those who died and left no heir were therefore available for distribution among those who remained. Sometimes such tenements might be taken up by immigrants who had sickened of their own, less fertile holdings and let the wilderness take over its own again. But more often the lands of the deceased were carved up among the surviving tenants of the village.

Each tenant, therefore, was likely to have a larger holding than before and, in the fluid conditions which prevailed after the plague, these could be organized into more coherent and viable blocks than had been possible under the old pattern of cultivation. The tendency was reinforced where the landlord alienated his demesne. Once a tenant was established in possession of a coherent parcel of land, then it was inevitable that he would seek to demarcate it more clearly and organize his different activities on a more workable basis. It would be wrong to speak of any dramatic and sudden switch; it took generations to transform the face of the countryside. But the hedged fields of England can plausibly be argued to have had their genesis in the aftermath of the Black Death and though such changes would, in the long run, have been inevitable, their evolution might otherwise have followed a distinct and far more protracted path.

Textbooks have often nurtured the tradition that another consequence of the Black Death was a wide-spread switch from arable to sheep-farming. The logic of such a development is clear. As a result of the plague, labour was scarce and dear – what more natural than to switch from labour-intensive crops to sheep which called for a minimum of skilled attention? But because something could reasonably be expected to have happened, it does not follow that it did. In fact there is little evidence to show that there was any movement to pasture farming, none to show that the movement was general throughout the country. The acreage under plough certainly dropped but this was no more than a symptom of the retreat from the less profitable marginal lands which was already marked before the plague. There is no corresponding increase in wool production to set against this trend: on the contrary, the third quarter of the fourteenth century is one of diminished demand for wool and of stagnation or even decline in English sheep-farming.8 The great swing to sheep, with its concomitants of vastly increased national prosperity and the harsh social policy of enclosure, was checked rather than advanced by the Black Death.


Another field in which the significance of the Black Death seems more significant in legend than in reality is that of architecture. The skilled masons capable of executing the fine traceries and, still more, the figure sculpture of the Decorated period were, it is contended, almost wiped out by the plague. Those who were left were too much in demand, too pressed for time, to be able to use their talents to the full. The new generation of masons, artisans rather than artists, were affected by the new mobility of labour which was so marked a feature of the post-plague period. Forced to work in a variety of stones, most of them unfamiliar, it was inevitable that the workmen should opt for less complicated and ambitious techniques.9 The result was a sharp fall in standards. Prior and Gardner write with disdain of the ‘same stereotyped monotony, the same continuous decline in the skill of execution, the same obvious diminution of interest in the craft of the artificer’ which were to be found in the detailed work of the period.10

There is, of course, something in this argument. Without doubt many skilled craftsmen died during the plague and were never replaced. With them died one of the glories of English religious architecture. There can be no absolute standard of beauty but most people would probably agree that York Minster would be more perfect a building if work had begun ten or twenty years before it did. As it was, work came to a sudden stop on the almost completed west front and nave. The choir had not yet been begun and no further progress was made till 1361. For its construction the old plans were scrapped and the Decorated style replaced by the formal stiffness of the Perpendicular. One reason at least for this must have been the technical impossibility of continuing to build a Decorated church when so many of the more experienced masons were dead.11

But can a trend which led directly to the towers of Worcester, the west front of Beverley Minster or the nave of Canterbury, possibly be cited as evidence of inferior artistry? To suggest that the Perpendicular style was no more than a degenerate variant on the traditional Decorated would show a derisory misunderstanding of one of the noblest schools of English architecture. Nor should the significance of the Black Death be over-stated in an artistic revolution which had started twenty years before and which the calamities of the mid-fourteenth century checked but could not extinguish. The transept and choir of Gloucester, the cradle of Perpendicular, were completed in 1332 and, though the Black Death introduced economic and social factors which diffused the new fashion more widely, it would be misleading to suggest that those were of prime importance. ‘Perpendicular’, wrote Mr Harvey, ‘was not the outcome of poverty and failure, but of riches and success. Only to a comparatively slight extent was its course changed by the coming of the Black Death, which did but accelerate a movement already in being.’12 Many architectural historians would today put its significance more emphatically, but no bald statement of cause and effect can do justice to the complexity of the subject.


1 Campbell, op. cit., p. 162, (Grenoble, Vercelli, Reggio and Naples).

2 A F. Leach, The Schools of Medieval England, London, 1915, p.197.

3 W. A. Pantin, The English Church and the Continent: The Later Middle Ages, London, 1959, p.3.

4 Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (ed. Powicke and Emden), Oxford, 1936, Vol. III, p.317.

5 Hist. MSS. Comm., Vth Report App. (1874), p.450.

6 V.C.H. Oxfordshire, Vol. III, p.154.

7 J. E. T. Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, op. cit., p.224.

8 E. Power, The Wool Trade in English Mediaeval History, Oxford, 1941, p.35.

9 E. Prior, Cathedral Builders, London, 1905, p.130.

10 Prior and Gardner, Medieval Figure Sculpture in England, London, 1912, p.390.

11 R. Crawfurd, Plague and Pestilence in Literature and Art, op. cit., pp.130–31.

12 J. Harvey, Gothic England, London, 1947, p.40.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!