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To What Extent Did Peasants' Living Conditions Improve After The Black Death In England?

International Baccalaureate Extended Essay

Date : 08/08/2013

Author Information

Rhiannon

Uploaded by : Rhiannon
Uploaded on : 08/08/2013
Subject : History

To What Extent Did Peasants' Living Conditions Improve After the Black Death in England?

By Rhiannon Reilly Supervisor: Giles Roberts Richmond Upon Thames College Word Count: 3766

Contents Title Page - 1 Contents - 2 Abstract - 3 Brief Background to the Black Death - 3 Introduction - 4 Quality of Buildings - 5 Class of Peasants - 8 Availability of Land - 9 Life Expectancy - 9 Wages - 10 Legislation - 12 Conclusion - 14 Bibliography - 14

ABSTRACT This essay addresses the question how far did living conditions for peasants' improve after the Black Death. Using information regarding buildings, availability of land, availability of labour and prices and wages, taking into account how the class of peasant would affect their improvement in living conditions. Using research specifying materials used, construction of and size of buildings, the extent of improvement could be judged. Life expectancy was also looked at. It was not found to be useful as it was contradicted by a number of sources and no clear trend could be seen. Wages enjoyed an increase, however, while it allowed some improvement in buildings, it was not sufficient an increase for peasants to afford necessary food items every day. Individual case studies, such as that of an individual workers wage, and community case studies, seen whilst determining the use of crucks in houses in the West Midlands, were used. In conclusion it was found the living conditions did improve, however, not to a large extent, or an extent to which may have been expected. This was due to statutes and legislation passed in order to limit improvement for peasants by landlord classes.

BRIEF BACKGROUND TO THE BLACK DEATH The Black Death is the name given to the disease called the bubonic plague which struck Medieval England in 1348, killing an estimate of 1.5 million out of 4 million by 1350. No medical knowledge was present to treat the disease. Post 1350 the disease struck another 6 times in England by the end of the century. However, it was the outbreak from 1348-1350 which left significant impact on English social structure; eventually leading to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Its' symptoms were described by Boccaccio from Florence, Italy (1348): "The first signs of the plague were lumps in the groin or armpits. After this, livid black spots appeared on the arms and thighs and other parts of the body. Few recovered. Almost all died within three days, usually without any fever." The Black Death was caused by fleas carried by rats that were very common in towns and cities. The fleas bit into their victims literally injecting them with the disease. Due to the unsanitary methods of disposal of bodies and the cramped living quarters the disease spread quickly.

INTRODUCTION "From the earliest times of which we have record - back, say, to two thousand years before Christ - down to the beginning of the 18th century, there was no very great change in the standard of living of the average man living in the civilized centres of the earth. Ups and downs certainly. Visitation of plague, famine and war. Golden intervals. But no progressive violent change." (Keynes, 1931) . I intend to focus my essay on one of these short 'golden intervals' (Postan, 1972) as it differs so greatly from the pattern of living conditions up till the 18th century. It interested me to see the extent to which circumstances must change for living conditions to improve for peasants. Peasants are defined as small scale rural cultivators, occupying a relatively subordinate social position and having relatively low incomes (Hilton, 1975) . In order to evaluate 'To What Extent Did Peasants' Living Conditions Improve After the Black Death in England' research must be done into the quality of their buildings, wages and style of life. These will have changed after the Black Death of 1349 and plague outbreaks till 1361; numbers of farmers and agricultural labourers were reduced. In just 3 years (1348 to 1350) the Black Death destroyed a third of England's population. Such a dramatic drop in population gave peasants real economic power for the first time NATIONAL ARCHIVES; this improved the economic position of manorial tenants and labourers in the countryside. Peasants were now able to demand higher wages and better working conditions as landlords were not able to replace them with as much ease as previously. As a result peasants would be able to afford better living conditions'. After the plagues land and corn were plentiful, rents and restrictions reduced and standards of living improved. However, in response to these new circumstances, landlord classes attempted to freeze wages at pre-plague levels through the Statute of Labourers in 1351 NATIONAL ARCHIVES. Improvements in living conditions were then limited. A wide range of documents were available for the period in the National Archives. Most of these are in Norman French and Latin and are inaccessible to me, however, a significant number were also available in English translation online. Quality of buildings, rent, land and resources, life expectancy and wages are the key areas in through which living conditions will be determined. Quality of buildings has a direct impact on standard of living. Buildings protect the inhabitants from the elements; if this protection was poor the peasants would suffer with lack of protection. For example, exposure to damp would lead to illness and, due to a lack of medical assistance, possibly death. Rent affected living conditions; a higher rent meant a lower proportion of income could be spent of food, clothing and household goods. The amount of land and resources available determined the class of peasantry the peasants belonged to. If more was readily available peasants were able to work their way up the classes, thus achieving a higher quality of life. Life expectancy was expected to be an indicator as to the quality of life experienced by the peasants. A higher life expectancy infers living conditions were of a higher standard. However, life expectancy was found to be inconsistent with very few records relating to peasants. Wages were one of, if not the, most important determinant in living conditions. Peasants with increased wages would be able to afford a higher quality of buildings, more land and resources food and clothing could be bought.

QUALITY OF BUILDINGS Pre-1400's peasant lodgings are thought to have been 'flimsy' 'slight' built out of 'poor timber' (Hurst, 1984) , with a reluctance to date good timber-framed buildings for peasants to earlier than 1400 (Mercer, 1975) . For example, peasant farmers of late-medieval Goltho, Lincolnshire could afford for the first time the good-quality timber to put up a traditional long-house in a more durable form (PLatt, 1978) . This implies that post-plague peasants enjoyed an improvement in living conditions in the form of sturdier buildings. These would weather better, protect peasants from the elements and so decrease illness and have an increased longevity; thus providing future generations with substantial lodgings. Furthermore, due to changing circumstances landlords had to rely more and more on rent and less on direct management of agriculture (Dyer, 1994) . For example, in 1291 the Cistercians of Dieulacres, Staffordshire gained 8% income from rents whereas in the 1530's 70% was from rents (Wagstaff, 1970) . Therefore, landlords were more concerned with protecting peasant buildings. This became more difficult after the plague because of labour shortage which led to cottage dilapidations; they went unchecked, thus reverting to waste (Platt, 1978) . To counter this a court order was passed in 1370 in the West Midlands, it stated peasants who allowed buildings to demolish were fined. Tenants were also ordered to carry out repairs with very precise instructions, those that failed threatened with financial penalties. In some circumstances landlords helped tenants to carry out repairs or rebuilding's with remission of rent and arrears of rent. Rarely tenants even received gifts of cash; however, more commonly it was gifts of timber and straw. Demonstrating their desperation for improved buildings, landlords resorted to directly carrying out rebuilding or pay for labour and materials themselves (Harvey, 1977) . As a result of these changes in landlord attitudes and circumstances buildings were improved because peasants had more of an incentive and the help available to keep them in good repair. Further evidence is available to support the notion these changes in attitudes actually impacted peasant buildings. For example, in 1474 there was the first reference to a two storey building in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire (Dyer, n.d.) . Two storeys as opposed to one imply a higher level of luxury and more substantial building materials for the foundation. In addition, the long-house, where dwelling and byre were under one roof, became rarity after 1350; made evident from excavations in Gloucestershire (Dyer, 1994) . Having the means to own two buildings, one for dwelling and the other for animals, indicates a new age of affluence for peasants post-1350 (and so the plague) and an improvement on living conditions; animals would have a detrimental effect to their health and living quarters. However, peasants' buildings pre-1350 must also be fully explored and the assumption they were all 'flimsy' 'slight' built out of 'poor timber' (Hurst, 1984) should not be taken as fact. Whilst long-houses were significantly in higher distribution pre-plague, particularly in Dartmoor and Gomeldon, Whiltshire, improvements to peasant buildings were already underway. Foundations were replacing earthfast posts, these ranged from well-built and quite high dry-stone walls as can be found in Dartmoor and Cotswold, to thinner but mortared flint walls seen in Sussex (Dyer, 1994) . Moreover, the use of crucks (curved piece of timber to support roof) were in use in the West Midlands from 1313-1325 , pre-plague, showing conditions were already improving as building were more secure and likely to survive for a longer period of time (Smith, n.d.) . It was also discovered that in the 13th century peasants had sufficient income to employ professional craftsmen to construct their buildings (Dyer, 1994) . In order to make this possible, peasants must have enjoyed an increase in wages and, as a consequence, superior buildings. Reinforcing evidence is found in the form of the first emerging surnames, in Essex, 1222, Carpenter was becoming quite a common surname; implying carpentry was a growing trade (Ward, 1983) . There is also a significant deal of difficulty finding buildings pre-plague. Firstly 700 years is a lengthy amount of time for any building to survive fully intact so it is not surprising few did. Secondly, due to disagreements between landlords and tenants regarding dilapidations neglect was often deliberate, not as a result of poor building quality (Dyer, 1994) . On the other hand, it must be admitted buildings pre-plague were of poorer condition than that of buildings post-plague. In the late 13th century, when pressure on timber was at its highest, buildings were often poorly constructed due to timber scarcity. Post-plague this problem no longer had such a large impact as the smaller population meant that there were fewer buildings requiring timber. Additionally, as the late 13th century was the height of landlord power, landlords often fined peasants (Dyer, 1994) . They could control their tenants' income and economic well being, thus limiting the extent to which they could advance their living conditions. A smaller income meant that less money was available for improving buildings and materials of a poorer quality were all that could be purchased.

CLASS OF PEASANTS The extent to which the plague affected the peasants depended on whether they were villeins or freemen . Villeins benefited from better housing; however, they owed their landlords more in the form of labour and rents than freemen did. By the late 13th century half of all peasants were villeins (Dyer, 1994) . As they already benefited from better living conditions than freemen, their improvement in living conditions was to a lesser extent, with the plague mainly impacting freemen. Freemen, post-plague, were also able to demand higher wages than both before the plague and villeins were. Their labour was more valuable and they were not restricted by contracts and statutes as villeins were. They were capable of working for several employers and owed their landlords fewer duties than villeins did. Unlike villeins, if they were unhappy with their landlords' wages, they were allowed to find other employers without risking loss of home. AVAILIBILITY OF LAND Post-plague land accumulating opportunities also enhanced the living conditions of some peasants. Due to the fact there was a smaller population, much land was going unused and the current landlords could not cultivate it with their decreased labour force. Half of all occupied messuages of 1340's became unoccupied tofts by end of 100 years (Dyer, 1994) . This resulted in free availability of land post-plague; thus giving already-propertied families a major opportunity to increase their assets. For example, many peasant land-accumulators were raised up into a new yeomanry following their exploitation of land surpluses following the Black Death. There were other signs of peasants improving their position in society through easier accessibility of land and resources. For example, when labour and expense of running manors became too much for the canons of Leicester; richer peasants had skill and resources to take over. Through the plague diminishing the rent received by the canons and their labour forces, these peasants were able to improve their living conditions, gaining manors as opposed to their smaller homes before (Platt, 1978) .

LIFE EXPECTANCY The lack of systematic records of births, marriages and deaths for the late medieval period make it difficult to establish the life expectancy for the working classes after the arrival of the Black Death. Such an absence of data has forced medieval historians to seek alternative sources, such as small closed communities like monasteries. Studies of three separate monasteries by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure have identified high levels of mortality and a prolonged fall in life expectancy at age twenty-five from c.1425. This indicates life expectancy is unreliable and unpredictable as, due to an increasing quality of living conditions, it is expected that life expectancy would increase. Also carried out was a study of mortality and life expectancy of scholars enrolled at three separate colleges during the period 1393-1540. The data presented in this paper demonstrates that life expectancy experienced by those who undertook their education at Winchester College and New College, Oxford was generally higher than that experienced by the monastic communities over the course of the same period. Such a difference in the nature of the college based sample suggests that the dramatic fall seen in monastic life expectancy may not be applicable to the population as a whole. Once more implying life expectancy is not a reliable determinant of standards of living. Furthermore, it must be allowed that these samples (monks and scholars) may not be representative of the wider medieval population. Since monks and scholars were generally better fed, clothed and sheltered, and had better medical care than most people, their adult life expectancy is probably comparable with the adult life expectancy for the wealthy. Their life expectancy patterns may not reflect those of peasants in the same period (Oakes, 2009) .

Russell (1948) estimated the life expectancy at the age of 25 years for tenants who reached 25 years of age between 1301 and 1325 and between 1326 and 1350 as 23.5 and 21.4 years respectively. These estimates differ by a couple of years from those of Oakes. Hatcher (1986) estimated life expectancy at the age of 25 years for the monks of the Christ Church priory in Canterbury during the 15th century. He found values between 21.1 and 29.0 years. These estimates are close to the estimates found for the tenants-in-chief by Jonkers (M.A.Jonker, 2002) .

WAGES Wages were an important determinant of a peasant's standard of living. In the late Middle Ages, one-third of the peasant population gained all/part of their livelihood from wages (R.H.Hilton, 1985) . Workers on annual contracts received a combination of cash and food, with accommodation and clothes thrown in occasionally as their wages. Wages were also supplemented by retail trade and cultivation of land; however, this would not have been a large supplement (H. Phelps Brown, 1981) . Peasants owed their landlords in terms of labour, so the labour they carried out would not benefit them, it benefited their landlords. A varying wage would have a significant impact on most, if not all, of the population. One third heavily relied on wages for their livelihood, the other two third most probably relied on these wage earners, for example, older peasants and peasant children Post-plague peasants enjoyed new power over their wages. As a result of a severe drop in population there was less labour available, the workers themselves were more valuable and landlords were more interested in keeping their workers. Peasants were able to demand higher wages as the alternative of leaving was not a viable option for the landlords. Furthermore, the peasants working for the landlords changed. In Cuxham, Oxfordshire, in 1349, 12 of lords' villeins died within a year. The new tenants were turbulent and reluctant to perform labour services (Platt, 1978) . They insisted on their right to a high wage whenever the opportunity presented itself. For example, there were major wage increases in 1370's and 1380's, with all-out highs beginning in the 1420's (PLatt, 1978) . A study conducted by Phelps Brown and Hopkins calculated daily wages of skilled building workers in southern England increased by 66% from 1340-1390. Unskilled workers' wages doubled from 1 d to 3d . Real daily wages of craftsmen rose by 45% and unskilled workers increased by more (H. Phelps Brown, 1981) . This shows, post plague in a period of only 50 years, there was a significant increase in wages for the remaining peasants. Higher wages meant peasants could afford a better standard of living. They could afford better housing material, more and better food then peasants before, who often went malnourished and went without sufficient clothing. A continued increase in nominal wages from 1351 (post-plague) up till 1411 can be seen in this graph. This supports the argument that peasants' wages experienced higher wages after the plague.

LEGISLATION However, certain measures were taken to ensure the r

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