The Black Death



bulletIn 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.
bulletThe 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]


bulletEvidence 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.

This World's Joy

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.



bullet 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.
bullet 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

bullet The psychological impact of this first outbreak of plague was immense, but its immediate economic consequences were less drastic than might be expected.
bullet The initial outbreak seems to have killed largely adult victims, and its first effect was to reduce the shortage of land and food.
bullet 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.
bullet 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

bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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 1330-1450

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 land.

Despite the landlords' efforts, the bargaining power of tenant farmers and agricultural laborers grew.


bullet 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.