Economic Change and Social Tension in the Late Fourteenth Century
In the 1370s, English society was under a great deal of tension. There were:
Political problems resulting from the lack of an undisputed leader and from the failure of the war effort. Religious problems due to lack of spiritual leadership from the church, complicated by the same war pressures, which introduced the divisive issue of clerical taxation into relations between clerical and lay politicians. In the same decade of the 1370s, there were other social and economic problems: Landlords (a class that included almost all rich and important people) and their peasant tenants were set against each other, because economic change had made the social structure of the 12th and 13th centuries obsolete. The background
The thirteenth century was an era of expansion. Population, agricultural production, commercial activity, and prices for commodities had all been rising since the eleventh century at least. Landlords did well. Land was scarce and labor was plentiful; thus prices for agricultural good and rents were high, while wages were low. There was profit to be made in exploiting the rights most lords held over their peasant neighbors -- rights to labor services, death duties, restrictions on marriages to outsiders. Management by literate professionals became the norm on big estates, and some of the lesser ones. An era of "high farming" (intensive investment, specialization, close supervision by the owner). After 1315, this pattern was disturbed. 1315 was the beginning of the first major famine England and western Europe had seen in a long time. Many people who had been living at the bare subsistence level died. Thereafter the population continued to decline, perhaps because peasants began to marry later and limit the size of their families. The great expansion had come to an end. A long recession, in which markets shrank and prices fell, began. The greatest single shock was the Black Death or bubonic plague of 1348-49, which may have killed a third of England's population. It is difficult to measure the psychological component of this catastrophe, But economically, the plague, following on the earlier decline changed the whole shape of society. The prosperity of the earlier period. had been based on constant expansion. The upper classes in particular had benefited from their monopoly of scarce resources and the cheapness of labor. In the second half of the 14th century, labor became the scarcest resource, while everything else dropped in price. Food and other agricultural commodities became cheaper because the market for them was smaller. Rents were lower, because the return on land was less and there were fewer people competing for it. The new economic climate spelled opportunity for the peasant survivors of the plague. Of course this situation frightened all landlords. Their income was dropping at precisely the time that wages were soaring. In 1349, almost immediately, the king's council issued an ordinance forbidding wage raises. Two years later, parliament passed its first notable economic legislation, the Statute of Laborers of 1351. Wages were pegged at the pre-plague level, and all landless men under sixty were compelled to accept work at those rates. A man's own lord had first claim on his services. Agricultural workers were forbidden to leave their masters before their contracts were up, and no other master was to hire them if they did. There was also a rather weak and unspecific attempt to regulate prices, but as usually happens, the price controls were an immediate failure. The wage controls were somewhat more successful. The people who agitated for this law, the people who were in charge of enforcing it, and the people who benefited were all the same, and they put a great deal of effort into keeping wages down and workers in their place. In the long term, of course, legislation could not reverse the economic trend. The landlords...
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