At the beginning of the 14th century, most people in England worked in the countryside as part of an economy that fed the nation’s towns and cities and supported an extensive international trade system. Production was generally organised around manors, which were controlled by local lords, the gentry and the Church and governed through a system of manorial courts. Some of the population at the time were unfree serfs who had to work on their lords’ lands for a set period each year, and the balance of free and unfree labour varied across England.
Serfs that were born unfree could not leave their manor to work elsewhere without the consent of the local lord or marry without their lord’s approval, whilst others accepted limitations on their freedom as part of the tenure agreement for their farmland. Women that married outside the manor had to pay the lord compensation for lost labour and in addition to rent on the land which was usually paid in agricultural produce, serfs also had to devote a portion of the week to working the lord’s land which took precedence over their own during harvest time.
The Black Death
Everything changed in 1348 however, when a plague that came to be known as The Black Death reached England. An estimated 50 per cent of the population perished and a much higher percentage died amongst the peasantry. The effect of this was to increase the amount of available land, which in turn caused a reduction in rents that were paid to landowners. As manpower became short in supply as a result of the decimation of the population, wages increased sharply which in turn resulted in the erosion of landowner profits and a disintegration of financial systems in the towns.
The Ordinance of labourers was passed by the authorities in 1349 as a response to all the chaos. It is widely regarded as England’s first piece of labour legislation and it sought to fix wages, to impose controls on the price of goods as a counterweight to the inflation that resulted from increasing wages, it required everyone under the age of 60 to work and it prohibited rival landowners from outbidding competitors for the services of labour.
The wealthy elites were struggling under the economic changes that the plague had brought and the new laws were intended to thwart this. As the landowner and poet John Gower said of post-plague labourers, “they are sluggish, they are scarce, and they are grasping. For the very little they do they demand the highest pay.”
The Ordinance of Labourers was widely ignored in practice, so the authorities then passed the Statute of Labourers in 1351 that set a maximum wage at pre-plague levels – an amount that was itself drawn from a period of economic depression.
Despite these repressive economic measures, the purchasing power of workers steadily increased over the following decades which caused the authorities to bring in ever more reactionary legislation. 1363’s sumptuary laws for example, sought to prevent the lower classes from consuming expensive goods that were formerly only affordable by the elite.
The high taxes that were imposed as a result of England’s conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War, instability within the local leadership of London alongside the general disdain of the lower classes who felt ever more oppressed by attempts to keep their standard of living in check – all combined to inspire the outbreak of the bloody Peasants Revolt of 1381.
A wide spectrum of rural society, including local artisans and village officials, rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local gaols. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to the system of serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts.
Whilst the revolt was ultimately crushed after spreading across large areas of the country resulting in the deaths of over 1500 people, the government had to curtail its foreign policy and military expeditions whilst the institution of serfdom vanished almost completely in England by the 15th century.
In our opinion the 14th century landowners shouldn’t be too upset about causing the demise of an institution that had been around since the Roman times through simply not wanting to evolve with the times. Here at The W1nners’ Club we hired somebody once who asked us if he could work flexible hours – so we sacked him for gross misconduct!