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 

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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.

Late Marriage as a Contributor to the Industrial Revolution in England

by James Foreman-Peck and Peng Zhou (Cardiff University)

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A Wedding at St George’s Church in London. Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-17/wedding-at-st-georges-church-in-london/8443430

A central question of economics is why some nations experienced economic growth and are now rich, when others have not and are poor. We go some way to answering this core question by estimating and testing a model of the English economy beginning four or five centuries before the first Industrial Revolution. Western Europe experienced the earliest modern economic growth and also showed a uniquely high female age at first marriage – around 25 – from at the latest the 15th century. Whereas real wages actually began a sustained rise during the first Industrial Revolution, without the contribution of late marriage, average living standards in England would not have risen by 1870.

We utilise long time series evidence, some dating back to 1300, and test the hypothesis that this West European Marriage Pattern was an essential reason for England’s precocious economic development. Persistent high mortality in the 14th and 15th centuries and massive mortality shocks such as the Black Death lowered life expectations. Subsequently as survival chances improved, especially for children, a given completed family size could be achieved with a smaller number of births. In an environment without artificial birth control, a rise in the age at first marriage of females ensured this reduction in fertility.

Later marriage not only constrained the number of births but also provided greater opportunities for female informal learning, especially through ‘service’. A high proportion of unmarried females between the ages of 15 and 25 left home and worked elsewhere, instead of bearing children, as in other societies. This widened female horizons compared with a passage from the parental household directly into demanding motherhood and housekeeping. Throughout this period the family was the principal institution for educating and training future workers. Schooling was not compulsory until 1880 in England. In the early nineteenth century few children attended any school regularly and few remained at school for more than one and a half years. Such skills and work discipline as were learned were passed on and built up over the generations primarily by the family. Our paper shows how, over the centuries, the gradual rise of this human capital raised productivity and eventually brought about the Industrial Revolution.

Over past centuries marriage and the family were an important engine of economic growth. Whether they still have any comparable contribution in an economy where the state has assumed so much responsibility for education and training remains an open question.        .

 

To contact the authors:

James Foreman-Peck,  Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, CF10 3EU (foreman-peckj@cardiff.ac.uk.  Tel:07947 031945)

Peng Zhou,  Cardiff  Business School, Cardiff University CF10 3EU.  (ZhouP1@cardiff.ac.uk)

Safe-haven asset: property speculation in medieval England

by Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick (ICMA Centre, University of Reading)

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While we might imagine the medieval English property market to have been predominantly ‘feudal’ in nature and therefore relatively static, this research reveals that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it demonstrated increasing signs of commercialisation.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that a series of demographic crises in the fourteenth century caused an increase in market activity, as opportunities for property ownership were opened up to new sections of society.

Chief among these was the Black Death of 1348-50, which wiped out over a third of the population. In contrast with previous research, this research shows that after a brief downturn in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the English market in freehold property experienced a surge in activity; between 1353 and 1370, the number of transactions per year almost doubled in number.

The Black Death prompted aristocratic landowners to dispose of their estates, as the high death toll meant that they no longer had access to the labour with which to cultivate them. At the same time, the gentry and professional classes sought to buy up land as a means of social advancement, resulting in a widespread downward redistribution of land.

In light of the fact that during this period labour shortages made land much less profitable in terms of agricultural production, we might expect property prices to have fallen.

Instead, this research demonstrates that this was not the case: the price of freehold land remained robust and certain types of property (such as manors and residential buildings) even rose in value. This is attributed to the fact that increasing geographical and social mobility during this period allowed for greater opportunities for property acquisition, and thus the development of property as a commercial asset.

This is indicated by changes in patterns of behaviour among buyers. The data suggest that an increasing number of people from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in property speculation – in other words, purchase for the purposes of investment rather than consumption.

These investors purchased multiple properties, often at a considerable distance from their place of residence, and sometimes clubbed together with other buyers to form syndicates. They were often wealthy London merchants, who had acquired large amounts of disposable capital through their commercial activities.

The commodification of housing is a subject that has been much debated in recent years. By exploring the origins of property as an ‘asset class’ in the pre-modern economy, this research draws inevitable comparisons with the modern context: in medieval times, much as now, ‘bricks and mortar’ were viewed as a secure financial investment.

From The Conversation: No, the Black Death did not create more jobs for women

by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford
Published on 8 April 2014

The plague known as the Black Death which tore through 14th century Europe is traditionally held to have had at least one upside. Women, the theory runs, were able to exploit the labour shortages of post-plague England to find themselves in a richer and more stable position than before. However the idea that women of the era were forerunners of the post World War I generation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as new research shows.

Medievalists have long debated the extent to which women shared in the “golden age” of the English peasantry that followed the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death. The plague killed between 30% and 45% of the population in its first wave 1348-59. Recurrences meant that by the 1370s England’s population had been halved.

The silver lining, for the peasantry at least, was the dramatic increase in workers’ remuneration as landowners struggled to recruit and retain labourers. The results are apparent in a rapid increase in male casual (nominal and real) wages from about 1349.

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Some historians have argued that women’s gains were even more marked as they could find employment in hitherto male-dominated jobs, or migrate to towns to work in the growing textile industries and commercial services and so enjoy “economic independence”.

Others however have suggested that whatever the implications of the Black Death for male workers, the sexual division of labour prevented women from seizing the opportunities created by the labour shortage. As one account puts it: “Women tended to work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs … This was true in 1300 and it remained true in 1700”.

The debate has significant implications as optimists have gone further in arguing that women’s improved wages changed demographic behaviour by delaying marriage, promoting celibacy and reducing fertility, with the resulting so-called north-west European Marriage Pattern raising incomes and promoting further growth.

READ FULL ARTICLE HERE