I would like to thank the two historians at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum for this post. They made it clear to me that daily life of the medieval peasant improved significantly after the Black Death.
Before the plague, in 1348, England was vastly overpopulated which suited the landlords perfectly. They had an abundant source of cheap labour to work their fields for little or no pay. Each peasant was obligated to work his master’s land for at least three days a week. Then he still had to cultivate his own meagre portion of land hoping to grow enough to feed his family.
It’s known that there was a climate change at the beginning of the fourteenth century which resulted in colder winters and wetter summers. Between 1315 and 1322 crops failed and people starved. And yet the nobility who owned the land still demanded their taxes and labour. By and large, generosity towards the peasant class seems to have been non-existent.
So how did the Black Death of 1348 change all this? It will come as no surprise that the plague hit the peasant class the hardest. They were, after all, the poorest, most malnourished members of society. It’s estimated that approximately 50% of the population died, most of them from the peasant class. In some areas the death toll was even higher.
In fact, it killed so many people that there was hardly anyone left to work the land. For the first time those on the lowest rungs of society had a bargaining chip. Instead of working for their lord they could go and work for another landowner and demand a better wage. The nobility fought back. In 1351 they past an act of parliament that stated;
“It was lately ordained by our lord king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council against the malice of employees, who were idle and were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages, that such employees, both men and women, should be obliged to take employment for the salary and wages accustomed to be paid in the place where they were working in the 20th year of the king's reign , or five or six years earlier; and that if the same employees refused to accept employment in such a manner they should be punished by imprisonment, as is more clearly contained in the said ordinance.”
It failed. Wages rose and with it the standard of living for the common man. Because so many of its educated clerks had died Parliament was forced to pass a statute, in 1362, stating that all pleas should be heard in English. This is the moment when English replaced French as the official language of England. I imagine it also made the legal process more accessible to the ordinary man.
Before the plague English society was divided into three main groups; the nobility, the church and the peasants. After the Black Death with the increase in commerce and wages there emerged a class of merchants and yeoman farmers; people who weren’t nobility, but who weren’t peasants either. These were the landed freemen; they were a class of society that hadn’t been seen in England before. They were, what I would call, the beginnings of a middle class.
Within a generation of the Black Death preachers like John Wycliffe and John Ball started to spread their message that all men were created equal.
John ball is quoted in the medieval document The Froissart Chronicles as saying;
“Ah, ye good people, the matter goes not well to pass in England, nor shall not do so till everything be common, and that we be all united together and that the lords be no greater masters than we. What have we deserved or why should we be thus kept in serfdom? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve. How can they claim to prove that they be lords more than us, save by making us produce and grow the wealth that they do spend?”
Commoners listened and thanks to their new social freedoms, garnered after the Black Death, they seemed to have a new confidence when it came to demanding their rights. In 1381 The Peasants Revolt swept through England. The revolt itself was a reaction against over taxation caused by the Hundred Year’s War, but it was a revolt for commoners and led by commoners, the first of its kind in English history, and something that would’ve been unimaginable a hundred years earlier.
For me this idea that all men are created equal is the beginning of democracy in England. Not that democracy or the middle class were new ideas even in the medieval period. Greek philosopher Aristotle said,
“The most perfect political community must be amongst those who are in the middle rank.”
And scholars today believe that to maintain democracy you need a strong middle class. In England the middle class was born out of the suffering and devastation that was the Black Death.
To quote H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
“By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth.”
We have paid for our democracy with millions of lives, not just those who have died for an ideal, but also those who suffered and died so that the ideal of equality could be formed.
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