After the Black Death: labour legislation and attitudes towards labour in late-medieval western Europe

by Samuel Cohn Jr. (University of Glasgow)

This blog forms part F in the EHS series: The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health:Research from Economic History

The full article from this blog post was published on the Economic History Review, and it is available for members at this link 

The_plague_of_ashdod_1630
Poussin, The plague of Ashdod, 1630. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_of_Ashdod_(Poussin)#/media/File:The_plague_of_ashdod_1630.jpg&gt;

In the summer, 1999, I presented the kernel of this article at a conference in San Miniato al Tedesco in memory of David Herlihy. It was then limited to labour decrees I had found in the Florentine archives from the Black Death to the end of the fourteenth century. A few years later I thought of expanding the paper into a comparative essay. The prime impetus came from teaching the Black Death at the University of Glasgow. Students (and I would say many historians) think that England was unique in promulgating price and wage legislation after the Black Death, the famous Ordinance and Statute of Labourers in1349 and 1351. In fact, I did not then know how extensive this legislation was, and details of its geographical distribution remains unknown today.

A second impetus for writing the essay concerned a consensus in the literature on this wage legislation principally in England: that these decrees followed the logic of the laws of supply and demand. In short, with the colossal mortalities of the Black Death, 1347-51, the greatly diminished supply of labour meant that wage earners in cities and the countryside could demand excessive increases that threatened the livelihoods of elite rentiers — the church, nobility, and merchants. After all, this is what chroniclers and other contemporary commentators across Europe — Henry Knighton, Matteo Villani, William Langland, Giovanni Boccaccio, and many others — tell us in their scorning reproaches to greedy labourers. As ‘Hunger’ in book IV of Piers the Ploughman sneered:

And draught-ale was not good enough for them, nor a hunk of bacon, but they must have fresh meat or fish, fried or baked and chaud or plus chaud at that.

In addition, across the political spectrum from Barry Dobson to Rodney Hilton, Bertha Putnam’s study of the English laws (published in 1908) continued to be proclaimed as the definitive authority on these laws, despite her lack of quantitative analysis and central conclusion: the peasants were guilty of ‘extortionate greed’ and for this reason ‘these laws were necessary and just’ (Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, pp. 219–20.) Yet, across Europe, while nominal wages may have trebled through the 1370s, prices for basic commodities rose faster, leaving the supposed heartless labourers worse-off than they had been before the Black Death. As George Holmes discovered in 1957, the class to profit most in England from the post-plague demographics was the supposed victimized nobility.

Through primary and secondary sources, my article then researched wage and price legislation across a wide ambit of Europe — England, the Ile de France, the Low Countries, Provence, Aragon, Castile, Catalonia, Florence, Bologna, Siena, Orvieto, Milan, and Venice. Certainly, research needs to be extended further, to places where these laws were enacted and to where they appear not to have been, as in Scotland and the Low Countries, and to ask what difference the laws may have meant for economic development. However, from the places I examined, no simple logic arose, whether of supply and demand or the aims that might have been expected given differences in political regimes. Instead, municipal and royal efforts to control labour and artisans’ prices splintered in numerous and often contradictory directions, paralleling anxieties and needs to attribute blame as seen in other Black Death horrors: the burning of Jews and the murder of Catalans, beggars, and priests.

In conclusion, a history of the Black Death and its long-term consequences for labour can provide insights for perceiving our present predicament with Covid-19. We can  anticipate that the outcomes of the present pandemic will not be same across countries or continents. Similarly, for the Black Death and successive waves of plague through the fourteenth century, there were winners and losers. Yet, surprisingly, few historians have attempted to chart these differences, and fewer still to explain them. Instead, medievalists have concentrated more on the Black Death’s grand transformations, and these may serve as a welcome tonic for our present pandemic despair, especially as concerns labour. Eventually, post-Black-Death populations experienced increases in caloric intact, greater varieties in diet, better housing, consumption of more luxury goods, increased leisure time, and leaps in economic equality. Moreover, governments such as Florence, even before revolts or regime change, could learn from their initial economic missteps. With the second plague in 1363, they abandoned their laws entitled ‘contra laboratores’ that had endangered the supplies of their thin resources of labour and passed new decrees granting tax exemptions to attract labourers into their territories. Moreover, other regions–the Ile de France, Aragon, Provence, and Siena abandoned these initial prejudicial laws almost immediately. Even in England, despite legislating ever more stringent laws against labourers that last well into the fifteenth century, its law enforcers learnt to turn a blind eye to the law, allowing landlords and peasants to cut mutually beneficial deals that enabled steady work, wages to rise, working conditions to improve, and greater freedom of movement.

Let us remember that these grand transformations did not occur overnight. The switch in economic policies to benefit labourers and the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor did not begin to show effects until a generation after the Black Death; in some regions not until the early fifteenth century.

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