What History Can Teach Us About Building a Fairer Society After CoronavirusHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, Medieval, plague
In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population, hastening the breakdown of rigid social hierarchies – what we now call “feudalism” – to an astonishing degree. But there was nothing inevitable about that transformation. It happened because people such as William Caburn exploited the crisis.
Two years after the plague hit England, this Lincolnshire ploughman was in court for “refusing to work at the daily rate”. He had no legal right to do so, but leveraging the fact that landlords didn’t have enough workers to cultivate the land, he bartered for higher wages.
It wasn’t just wages – peasants also collectively bargained for lower rents. We see in the accounts of one landlord how, in the several villages dotted across his Warwickshire estate, most tenants suddenly went into arrears at the same time. Almost certainly they were secretly communicating and cooperating.
Local protests and uprisings against landlords had happened before, but after the Black Death they became more common. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the biggest, but it was an overreach and was defeated. The ruling aristocracy resisted the peasants’ demands from the outset. Brutal new laws tried to stop labourers asking for better pay, and even specified what kind of fabrics people of different classes could wear.
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