The Black Death
|In the years before 1300, the population of England grew more
rapidly than agricultural production. Many people lived only at
subsistence level - a couple of bad harvests - such as those
of 1315-17 - resulted in starvation. In Halesowen in the West
Midlands, 15 percent of males died as a result of this Great Famine.|
|The rural economy showed other signs of strain in the first
decades of the 14th Century. An unknown disease killed livestock in
large numbers from 1319 to 1321.|
Cooling temperatures throughout Western Europe from about 1300
produced longer, colder winters, and wetter summers, and meant that grain
did not ripen and its roots rotted in the ground.
[Graph By Christopher Monckton]
|Evidence is not available to determine with any certainty just
how much population fell in the early part of the 14th Century, but
there was clearly a downturn.|
Wynter wakeneth al my care
Nou this leues waxeth bare
Ofte y sike and mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie hou hit geth al to noht
Nou hit is and nou hit nys
Also hit ner nere ywys
That moni mon seith soth hit ys
Al goth bote godes wille
Alle we shule deye thah vs like ylle
Al that gren me graueth grene
Nou hit faleweth al bydene
Jesu help that hit be sene
Ant shild vs from helle
For y not whider y shal ne hou longe her duelle.
(Written in Ludlow, in
the West Midlands, c.1340).
[Winter wakens all my care Now these leaves wax bare Often I'm
sick and mourn sorely When it enters my thoughts How the joy
of this world comes all to naught: Now it is and now it's not.
As though it never was, know That though many moan that it is so
All happens but as God wills We shall all die though we loathe
it. The grain around me grows green - Now it fades altogether.
Jesus help that this be seen And shield us from hell For I know
not whether, or how long, I shall here dwell.]
The Black Death
|In November 1347 a Genoese ship returning from
the Black Sea called at Naples on its route home. It brought the
"pestilence" or "great mortality" to Europe.
The disease -
later called the Black Death (because of the dark patches on the
skin caused by subcutaneous bleeding) was probably Bubonic
Plague. Bubonic plague is carried by black rats, and spread to
humans by the fleas that infest them. Human carriers could
themselves pass on the infection through contact or the air.
The rapidity of the disease's spread (not characteristic of
modern outbreaks) and the lack of contemporary reports of
numerous dead black rats suggests that other diseases (for
example typhus) may also have been involved.
The Black Death reached England in August 1348.
It first appeared in Dorset and had spread to London by November. It
reached Norwich by January 1349, Dublin by the summer, and Edinburgh
early in 1350.
In the next eighteen months,
between around 20 and 40 percent of the English population died.
Heavily populated areas suffered worst. Half the monks of Westminster
Abbey, for example, died. Whereas the normal number of wills
registered in London each year was about twenty (only rich men made
wills,) in 1348-9 the number was over 370.
Burying plague victims at Tournai
The psychological impact of this first outbreak
of plague was immense, but its immediate economic consequences were
less drastic than might be expected.
The initial outbreak seems to have killed
largely adult victims, and its first effect was to reduce the shortage of land and
However, although the plague disappeared in
1350, it returned in 1361 in what was known as "The Pestilence of the
Children." This outbreak killed the young disproportionately since
they did not have the acquired immunity of those who had lived through
1348-50. Further outbreaks hit in 1368-9, 1374-5 and 1378.
The subsequent outbreaks reduced the population
of England by half, and did not begin to recover until after 1450.
The effects of the Black Death
|The massive reduction in the number of people left much land
deserted. Landlords had great difficulty in finding tenants for
holdings and wage-laborers for their own demesnes.|
|The shortage of labor led to a shift from labor-intensive arable farming
to less intensive pasture - especially sheep.|
Underlying trend in craftsmen's real wages
|By the 1370's the decrease in population had
significantly increased wages. Parliament (controlled by
landowners) had passed a Statute in 1351 aimed at limiting the rise in
wages.) Landlords also tried to enforce to the letter their
rights to labor services and to prevent peasants leaving the
Despite the landlords' efforts, the bargaining power
of tenant farmers and agricultural laborers grew.
Manor records of the 1370s
show a growing number of cases of villeins defaulting on labor
services or simply leaving altogether. In the Parliament of October
1377, the Commons complained that laborers' high wage demands were
ruining them, and demanded that wage controls be enforced and holidays
with pay prohibited.