« PreviousContinue »
TABLE B (1380)
Estimate of the Black Death.
i. On 40 manors predial services were entirely abolished.
ii. On 39 manors villeins performed an insignificant part of the
iii. On 25 manors villeins performed about half the labour.
A comparison of Tables A and B shows that in 1350 the
We have been warned against the temptation to raise the great plague to the dignity of a constant economic force 1. On the one hand, it did not set in motion the tendencies towards commutation; on the other hand, the progress of the movement was most rapid at the end of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth century. The immediate effects of the pestilence were indisputably violent and catastrophic, but the real problem is to determine how far the changes which it produced were temporary and how far permanent. There is evidence that on some manors at least a reaction took place, and the pendulum gradually swung back again 3. Indeed the very statistics which we have cited above may easily convey a wrong impression. They are apt to suggest that after the Black Death there was a steady and ordered movement towards the general commutation of labour services. It is worth while therefore to turn to the rolls of one or two manors, and see how far this impression is justified by the study of their records. At Hutton, a manor in Essex, the precariae numbered 115, and the opera minuta or ordinary villein services numbered 738. The table of
1 Vinogradoff in English Hist. Review, xv. 779.
2 Infra, p. 95.
3 See Tables C and D, infra, p. 87. The ministerial accounts for Wellow (Vict. County Hist. Somerset, ii. 291) show the rapid recovery of the manor. The receipts for the years 1346-1347, 1349-1350 and 1350-1351 were respectively (omitting shillings and pence) £54, £38 and £56.
commutation for nine different years before and after the pestilence is as follows 1:
1341-2. 1353-4- 1354-5. 1358-9. 1362-3. 1365-6. 1367-8. 1388-9. 1389-90.
Opera Minuta 21 181 2851 77 none 82 147 160 none
This table bears out the conclusion that the effects of the plague, while severe, were often only temporary. In 1354 considerably more than one-third of the week-work was commuted; and a few years later none at all. The manor of Wistowe shows the same tendencies at work 2 :
Again on the manor of Woolstone in Berkshire 3, the sale of works, which at one time brought in £13:6: 8, produced in 1370 only £8: 4s. But while these facts must be taken into consideration, the remarkable increase of free labour within thirty years after the pestilence indicates how enormous was the influence which it exercised upon the economic situation. The Black Death constituted a land- & mark in the historical evolution of the English peasantry from servitude to freedom. It gave a violent shock to the ancient manorial arrangements and weakened irreparably the stability of the rural framework of mediaeval society.
However difficult it may be to measure the exact signific- Growth of ance of the Black Death, it is certain that the hundred years economy. which followed witnessed the complete disintegration of the old manorial order. The influences which had hitherto militated against the disappearance of villeinage, and had worked to preserve intact the system of unfree tenures, An Essex Manor ", in English Hist. Review, xxvi. 334. Neilson, Ramsey Manors, 72. 3 Vict. County Hist. Berkshire, ii. 187.
ceased to operate. The labour conditions of the country were transformed by the permeation of social forces, which called into existence a new agrarian organization and established a new set of economic relations. The drift of the movement was in fact nothing less than the substitution of a society, organized on the basis of free contractual relations, for a society based upon tenure and status; a society in which the customary relations between lord and tenant were superseded by a uniform legal bond and cash nexus. The plague, which lasted for fourteen months, from August 1348 to the autumn of 13491, is believed to have swept away one-half of the entire population 2. The figures of the chroniclers are to be accepted with caution 3, but the diocesan institution books and the court rolls of manors afford irrefragable testimony that the mortality was overwhelming, and the effects were bound therefore to be far-reaching. To begin with, it is natural to suppose that the money per head of the population was as good as doubled, if the population were halved while the currency remained unaffected. This would facilitate the growth of commutation by affording the villeins the means of turning their services into money payments. The objection has been raised 6 that the financial panic succeeding to so great a catastrophe would counteract the increase of the available capital, but the financial panic would only be temporary, and there are other indications which also seem to point to a more abundant currency. The plunder of the French wars brought money into the country, the woollen industry was rapidly expanding, and a class of moneyed men was arising in London and the large towns. If the assumption is tenable that a money economy was becoming more prevalent, it would help to explain the readiness with which
1 C. Creighton, History of Epidemics in Britain (1891), i. 177.
2 F. A. Gasquet, The Black Death (1908), 225. The number of wills enrolled in London in 1348 and 1349 is far in excess of other years: R. R. Sharpe, Calendar of Wills (1889), i. p. xxvii.
3 E.g. Knighton, a contemporary Leicester chronicler, exaggerates the figures for Leicester: Records of the Borough of Leicester, ed. M. Bateson (1899), ii. p. lxiv.
▲ A. Jessop, "The Black Death in East Anglia ", in The Coming of the Friars (1889), 206; Gasquet, op. cit. passim. Page, End of Villainage, 44, 57.
English Hist. Review, xv. 779.
the villagers seized the opportunities afforded by the anarchy that followed the Black Death to buy out their labour dues. The relative increase in the quantity of money removed the obstacle which had hitherto served to check the emancipation of the English peasantry.
While the villeins to all appearance now possessed the Position of means of commuting their services if they were so inclined, the villeins. there were stronger motives than ever to induce them to do So. Hitherto their position, when contrasted with that of the wage-earning class of rural labourers, had been in many respects enviable. They owned as a rule a substantial holding of twenty to thirty acres together with the valuable appurtenances of meadow and waste, their tenure was fixed in practice if not in theory, their services were determined by custom and in actual fact were not perhaps unduly onerous. But immediately after the Black Death there was an unprecedented rise in wages; reapers, for example, whose statutory rate was two or three pence per day, now often received fivepence or sixpence 1. "The labourers worked less", says the Reading Chronicler 2, "and their work was worse done". The prosperity of the hired labourer stirred the rivalry of the villeins, who now longed to win their freedom and to share in the golden opportunities enjoyed by the emancipated workers. They began to find the manorial yoke and the compulsion to forced labour increasingly irksome. The new appreciation of the value of labour suddenly laid bare the economic and social degradation of servitude. Thus on the manor of Forncett in Norfolk land was let in the year 1378 at an average money rent of tenpence an acre, while the labour dues exacted from some of the serfs appear to have worked out at three and ninepence the acre 3. Moreover, the Black Death affected the servile tenants in a way which merits the closest attention. The amount of labour service exacted from the tenant
1 B. H. Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers (1908), 90. In Rutlandshire (Vict. County Hist. i. 219) haymakers were not allowed to receive more than 1d. a day, mowers 5d., and reapers 2d. or 3d. But they succeeded in obtaining more; e.g. reapers were paid 4d. in 1350. 2 Chronica Johannis de Reading, ed. J. Tait (1914), 113.
3 F. G. Davenport, "The Decay of Villeinage in East Anglia ", in Trans. Royal Hist. Soc. N.S. xiv. 130-131.
The new situation.
in villeinage appears at first sight extremely heavy, and to leave little leisure for the care of his own scattered strips. But in reality, as we have already seen 1, a virgate generally maintained a household, not of one, but of several members, -and sometimes even more than one household-who cooperated together in discharging the obligations incumbent upon the holding. Indeed the fact that tenants were required at harvest-time to furnish additional labour indicates that there were men in every household, whose services were normally at their own disposal. The lord claimed the services of one man for one virgate, and the burden of these services was shared among the members of the household. But when the Black Death carried off half the nation the surviving tenants found their work actually doubled, not from any increased pressure on the part of the lord, but because the burden now fell entirely upon their own shoulders. An intolerable situation was thus created, the product of forces for which neither the lord nor the tenants were really responsible. As a natural corollary the villeins left no stone unturned to obtain relief from their position, and ultimately they broke out into open rebellion in 1381.
The emancipation of the villein was not achieved without a struggle. The very circumstances which now gave to economic freedom a new meaning enhanced in the eyes of the lords the value of the old servitude. They found that the increased cost of agricultural labour rendered the commutation of services no longer a profitable expedient. Thus at Aston 2 in Oxfordshire a tenant was forced to pay the large sum of twelve shillings as the price of commuting a rent of five shillings and customary services valued at three shillings and ninepence. The reluctance with which the landlords now accepted money payments in lieu of labour rents is shown by the provision inserted in the new leases, expressly safeguarding the rights of the lord, and fixing the duration of the tenancy at the lord's will or until a fresh tenant would agree to the old accustomed
1 Supra, p. 13. Cf. English Hist. Review, xv. 778-779.