the plague was an economic boon to survivors - 12/09/16

Today's selection -- from Summer of Blood by Dan Jones. The Black Plague of the mid-1300s may have killed as much as half the population of Europe and England. Though terribly tragic, the economic laws of supply and demand meant that survivors could command much higher wages -- and live, dress, and dine much better. So the aristocracy passed laws capping wages and restricting both what laborers could wear and eat:

"The Black Death arrived from continental Europe, probably via the Channel Islands, in the summer of 1348. Bristol, Southampton and Melcombe Regis (now Weymouth) suffered first, and from the ports the plague spread at a rate of between one and five miles a day, wiping out almost half of the English population. Sufferers succumbed to one of three equally nasty variations: the bubonic plague, in which buboes or tumours as big as eggs or even apples would appear on the neck, armpits and groin, bringing death within a week; a second variation, spread by the breath, attacked the respiratory system, and usually killed its victims within forty-eight hours. A septicaemic version also appeared, attacking the blood system, which led to internal haemor­rhaging, causing dark blotches grimly referred to as 'God's tokens' all over the body. ...

"The grim mortality caused great alarm across Europe, but in En­gland the economic effects of the plague worried the government just as much. In 1349 Edward III rushed out a royal command -- the Ordinance of Labourers. 'Because a great part of the people, and es­pecially of workmen and servants, late[ly] died of the pestilence,' read the proclamation, 'many seeing the necessity of masters, and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive ex­cessive wages.' In other words plague survivors could suddenly be­come rich. Having scrabbled for work in an employers' market before the Black Death, the English lower orders could suddenly name their price. This was very worrying. The official response -- ratified in the 1351 parliament as the Statute of Labourers -- was to set up a rigorous system of wage and price fixing, setting out maximum daily rates of pay for almost every profession imaginable. Farmers, saddlers, tai­lors, fishmongers, butchers, brewers, bakers and every other labourer and artisan in England were prevented from charging more than pre-plague prices for their goods or work; and they were committing a crime if they did not 'serve him which shall so require' -- meaning they had to work wherever and whenever they were instructed. Pun­ishments were tough -- three days' imprisonment in the stocks for first offenders, fines (300 per cent of the offending mark-up for shop­keepers who hiked their prices) and imprisonment for the obstinate.

The Triumph of Death

"From the day it was published, the Statute of Labourers was greeted with a mixture of hostility, contempt and point-blank refusal. Even in an age devoid of economic theory, the sheer injustice of tampering with natural supply and demand was obvious. So was its futility. As demand for workers raced well ahead of supply, the law quickly

became unworkable. But that did not stop landowners from trying to enforce it. Wage demands rose and rents crashed in the absence of tenants to fill the land, and the greater landlords found the basis of their fortunes crumbling. Prosecutions under the new labour laws rocketed. By the 1370s, 70 per cent of legal business in the king's courts involved the labour legislation, and this -- along with lords' newly enthusiastic use of their own private manor courts to force workers to perform as much labour service as possible -- quickly sowed a culture of discontent and resistance to the law among the lower orders. Far from protecting them, the royal law was being used to harass them, to question their right to earn their worth, and to prevent them from acquiring and protecting their property.

"From the position of the aristocracy, the labour laws made good sense. The sudden affluence of the rough-and-tumble village folk was threatening the divine and visible order of society just as much as the state of their private wealth. Rather than a fair rise in the value of labour, they saw what the Statute of Labourers called 'the malice of servants who were idle and unwilling to serve after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages'. They began to see ambitious and wealthy villagers adopting habits above their station, dressing smartly and affecting the appearance of their betters. Gower, writing in animal allegory, described how 'the asses now took it upon them­selves to enjoy jewelled saddles and always have their manes combed'. So in 1363 Parliament approved a reissue of the twenty-five-year-old sumptuary laws in an attempt to preserve a visible distinction be­tween the classes. The laws restricted the wearing of furs, or the in­creasingly popular pointed shoes, to nobles (who were allowed toe extensions of up to 24 inches), gentlemen (12 inches) and merchants (6.5 inches). They also forbade the lower orders from eating anything but the most basic foodstuffs."


Dan Jones


Summer of Blood: England's First Revolution


Penguin Books


Copyright 2009, 2016 by Dan Jones


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