The Role Of The Black Death In The Decline Of Serfdom In The Later Middle Ages

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During the late middle ages a black death emerged causing a deadly pandemic across Europe. Henry Knighton, a chronicler, wrote:

‘There died in Avignon in one day one thousand three hundred and twelve persons, according to a count made for the pope, and another day four hundred and fifty-eight persons and more. Three hundred and fifty-eight of the friars preachers in the region of provence died during lent.13

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It is estimated that 30 – 50% of Europe was killed by this disease. C. Baron, in the ‘Reign of Richard ||’, described this period of time as a period of opportunity, competition and experiment’. As a result of the sharp and rapid population decline, the serfs, also known as peasants, were given a window of opportunity to push for change. Francisco José Cano Galán states that ‘The direct impacts on economy and society were basically a reduction in production and in consumption’. The main outbreak which took place in 1348 destroyed social order and had a huge economic impact. The loss of population equated to loss of profits and workmanship. R.H.H Hilton describes ythis particular time period as having ‘the greatest problems of interpretation. This is due to the information being held in a wide range of acafemic journels which have ‘tended to remain inaccessible. This essay will explore how other factors played into the decline of serfdom as well as the black death.

It would appear that the landlords were at a great disadvantage in comparison to the serfs who greatly benefitted from the black death. The landowners were forced to pay wages in cash in order to attract and maintain the workmanship on their manors. As a result of this the amount of serfs decreased dramatically. Landlords had to protect what they owned whilst labour was now paid at the highest it had ever been due to the population loss suffered along with the decrease in the amount of landowners as they succumbed to the black death. This was a triumphant win for serfs as they could now pay their way through life rather than relying on grain and their hard labour. Landowners, in previous centuries had an edge over the serfs however the black death reduced the gap. The tables had turned and the landowners found they had no choice but to pay the serfs a fair amount whilst the value of their assets unexpectedly and substantially dropped. The serfs appeared, for the first time to be conquering their fight for privileges.

The statute of labourers of 1351 proposed by King Edward |||, 3 years after the initial outbreak shows that there was an urgent need for labourers. The rules on the relationship between the landowners and the serfs they ‘owned’ had not been amended in years, however the black death triggered/forced an amendment. The section of the amendment which particularly angered the serfs was the part that stated serfs would be unable to receive a higher wage than set in 1346.

‘Against the malice of servants who were idle and unwilling to serve after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages it was recently ordained by our lord the king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council, that such servants, both men, and women, should be obliged to serve in return for the salaries and wages which were customary (in those places where they ought to serve) during the twentieth year of the present king’s reign (1346-7) or five or six years previously’. 

‘… Because a great part of the people … has now died … some, seeing the straights of the masters and the scarcity of servants, are not willing to serve unless they receive excessive wages, and others … prefer to beg in idleness: We have seen fi t to ordain: that every man and woman of our kingdom of England … who is able bodied and below the age of sixty years, not living from trade nor carrying on a fi xed craft … shall be bound to serve him who has seen fi t so to seek after him; and he shall take only the wages … which … were accustomed to be paid in [1346] … and if any man or woman … will not do this … he shall be taken and sent to the next jail. … And if a reaper or mower, or other workman or servant … who is retained in the service of any one, do depart from the said service before the end of the term agreed, without permission … he shall undergo the penalty of imprisonment. … Likewise let butchers, fishmongers … all other vendors of any [food], be bound to sell such [food] for a reasonable price … and if any one sell such [food] in another manner, and be convicted of it in the aforesaid way, he shall pay the double of that which he received to the party injured. … And because many sound beggars do refuse to labour so long as they can live from begging … giving themselves up to idleness and sins … let no one, under the … pain of imprisonment presume, … to give anything to such as can very well labour, or to cherish them in their sloth, so that thus they may be compelled to labour for the necessaries of life.’

This was particularly distressing for the serfs because they needed more money to feed their family. Many farmers had not sowed or reaped the land because of the black death. The shortages resulted in higher prices for food. Ralph, earl of Stafford, complained to Edward ||| about how the peasants had begun roaming looking for better paid jobs. The serfs were no longer tied to the land and better still, the landowners. Some landowners refused to follow that particular law, especially those living in towns. Serfs became infuriated when they heard they could be earning triple the amount by moving into towns. Migration now became the norm. Furthermore, an orthodox historian contends that that ‘it was with these same members of the nobility and gentry in their capacity as Justices of the Peace or Justice of Labourers, tjat continuing enforcement of the statute of labourers lay; the popular odium and personal violence directed at such figures during the peasants revolt of 1381 is often cited in this context’. Page 28

The amendment to the Statute of Labourers also attempted to reinforce the (position) serfs had become accustomed to in previous decades. Also came a sense of desperation. The economy had greatly changed since the first outbreak and change had to be enforced. The elite were frightened by the increased wages and the sudden power the serfs had gained. The serfs were beginning the (gain) the freedom they so wanted. They were now able to decline work which ultimately contributed to the decline of serfdom.

The black death created a change in demographics which greatly varied across the () of the pandemic. These numbers did not return to normal until the 16th century. The death toll became an economic issue due to the lack of labourers available which in turn severely affected output and production. At this time farming was the most valuable and important occupation. Although death rates have severely differed, most historians agree that 30%-50% of Europe died as a result of the black death. During this time there was severe malnourishment within society, mainly because of the amount of grain serfs had to give to their landowners, high rates of death during labour and highly unsanitary conditions. Sharon DeWitte wrote in PLos ONE that Elderly people and those who were in poor health to begin with were much likelier to die’.This signifies that there were already conditions in place for the lower classes to succumb in great numbers to the plague. It is also evident that during this time poor workers, who represented the majority of society, were unable to afford a better quality of life died, whereas their wealthy and affluent peers survived by constructing a labour gap in the population. Moreover, workers paid taxes which funded public services. Without this major financial boost the economy suffered greatly.

The serfs, as mentioned previously benefitted from greater freedom as a result of the black death. Serfs were able to travel to find better suited and better paying jobs as a result of the large death toll (created) by the black death. The black death is depicted as the greatest supply side shock to the labour market in recorded history exposing landlords to the loss of up to half of their prospective tenants causes of decline book .according to Thomson serfdom had virtually disappeared in the years of labour shortages and declining population. Freedmen co continued to argue that The Decline of English villeinage was greatly encouraged if not caused by the untenable position of the lords with regard to enforcing the bondage of their tenants in the demographic aftermath of repeated plagues. The greater freedoms included their rights to rent land – also known as tenant farmers. They still had to pay (fees) to the landowners for using their land however for the first time they could choose what they sowed and how much they gave to the landowners. The church also become a viable source of income. The church had long since been the richest institution due to compulsory payments made called Tithes. Serfs could now join the clergy, giving them an ancient sense of democracy, again for the first time.

– Admits that although there are some statistics to support the rental values linked to the migration of peasants such as the fact that leasehold rents from east angle rose between the 1350’s and 70’s and fell 20% between the 1370’s and 1390’s

As briefly discussed in the introduction, social problems also greatly contributed to the decline of serfdom. Social problems further catapulted the (settings) already (created) by the black death. Moreover, there is scepticism regarding how related the decline in serfdom is to economic powers. ‘Marxist historians highlight that relations between lords and peasants and the balance of power within those relationships were more based more upon legal coercion than market forces.’ Social conflicts arose from the peasants aim to demolish the exact same structure the ruling class needed so desperately.

The peasants revolt was a (life changing) event which showed just how anguished the serfs had become. They revolted because of the 1351Statute of Labourers and the poll tax of 1381. The black death created a ripple effect as it allowed the peasants to seek more and their main grievance was the fact that they were serfs. They focused on being freed and due to the already chaotic economy. The king (Richard) had no choice but to agree or risk facing further economic turmoil. The poll tax was introduced to fund the Hundred Years War’. This looked like a direct attack on the serfs new found security.

Landowners also faced tough decisions. If they did not follow the requests of the serfs they face serious public unrest. One example of this unrest was how petty constables had to be put in place in order to control the working serfs as many now refused to work for the amount they were being paid. Page 33 The black death gave the peasants a golden opportunity to express their grievances. Society did not come to a stand still but it was greatly impacted by the peasants revolt which ultimately signified a new beginning.

To conclude the black death played a tremendous part in the decline of serfdom however it would be callow and ignorant to dismiss the social and geographical reasons for migration whilst acknowledging the economic factors.

G.G. Coulton described the economic issue as ‘Where the shock found discipline already lax, it loosened the bonds still further; where the economic crisis fell upon houses that were already in debt, it dragged them into still deeper embarrassments’

The conditions for social unrest ultimately arose from the aftermath of the black death. It must also be understood and accepted that the duration of the disease created an unprecedented snowball effect which lead to irremediable decisions. The disease also forced the elite to reconsider their outlook towards the serfs. The black death was also conflicting in that it caused terror and fear shilst rstablishign a path for positive change.  


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