Response To Recession, 1350 AD - 1500 AD

Living through the Black Death was a deeply shocking experience. Its pneumonic form, when bubonic plague coincided with pneumonia, killed its victims rapidly and inexorably. Everyone knew many victims - those communities which escaped lightly still lost a third of their inhabitants. The survivors coped with the emergency and dealt with the problems of widows and orphans, giving remarkable proof of the essential stability and resilience of Medieval society. Government quickly resumed and in a few years after the epidemic, production returned to near normality. But sustained recovery did not come. In 1377 AD the poll tax suggests a population of about 2.5 million, less than half the figure in 1300 and numbers remained low until well into the 16th Century. The landscape everywhere gave proof of physical decay - houses had collapsed; fields were grassed over or were being invaded by bushes; manor houses were abandoned; some parishes could no longer maintain their churches. However the survivors of the plague, once recovered from the shock of the event, were presented with many opportunities and even pleasures - land was plentiful, labor was well rewarded and the socially disadvantaged could improve themselves. Those who survived took to a better life with more leisure.

The new era seemed to offer other freedoms. Serfs realized they were better able to bargain with their lords for reduced rents and for the removal of servial duties. There was a substantial release from poverty and some wage-earners were able to acquire land, and tenants generally found that they could expand their holdings. Wages increased slowly at first but the well-being of those dependent on wages rose decisively after 1375 AD when grain prices fell after a period of poor harvests. Bread was no cheap.

The Upper Classes felt threatened. Workers had become expensive and ill-disciplined tenants were restless for better conditions. The price of manufactured and imported goods - building materials and winfe for example - rose because of the higher costs of production and transport but landlords received less for the agricultural produce they sold such as grain. The lords' initial reaction was to prevent the world from falling apart. Before 1348 AD there had been disagreements between them over King Edward III's prosecution of the war against France, but now they all closed ranks. New labor laws attempted to peg wages at the pre-plague level and to force workers to accept contracts for employment. Specially appointed justices vigorously enforced the law in localities. On their manors lords held to the old rules, enforcing serfdom and resisiting rent reductions. They actually increased the revenues for their courts putting a great deal of financial pressure on the reduced number of tenants. The poll taxes pf 1377 - 1380 insisted that everyone should pay a sum equal to a craftsman's daily wage and when mass evasion of this tax was investigated in the summer of 1381 the people of the southeast rose in revolt.

So dramatic was the uprising, rightly called the 'Great Revolt', that those in authority thought that the lower classes had gone mad. But close examination of the reasoning behind the Revolt suggests that it had rational basis: it drew on ideas that went back centuries and also expressed the frustration of the tense 30 years that had followed the Black Death.

Serfdom, which the peasantas had regarded as ripe for removal, did indeed disappear over the next hundred years, not by abolition or mass manumission as they had hoped but through gradual social erosion - above all because the serfs moved away from their manors and in new homes their status was forgotten. When lords bargained with their tenants in the 15th Century they were probably more ready to make concessions because of their long collective memory of the angry but purposeful riots of June 1381.

The Progression Of Medieval Economics

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