In the Wake of the Black Death
|The 14th century in Europe has
often been called the Calamitous Century and rightly so. The primary disruption of that
century was obviously the appearance of the Black Death (see Lecture
29). As we've seen, the Black Death was ultimately responsible for the gruesome death
of more than 25 million people, a figure which represented at least 30 percent of Europe's
total population. Whole villages and towns simply ceased to exist as the plague raged
across Europe at mid-century. To make matters worse, Europe suffered a series of crop
failures and famines which, while less deadly than the plague, persisted for several
years. There were three such famines which occurred just before and after the plague.
These famines were usually result of poor climatic conditions. Regardless of the cause,
times were indeed difficult for 14th century men and women.
Perhaps Europe was over-populated in at the start of the 14th century -- perhaps there were simply too many mouths to feed given the status of medieval agricultural techniques. And even in years of good harvest, most people had to survive on the slim margin of existence. The 14th century was not an age of plenty.
The declining population at the end of the 14th century had a number of important effects. Many people touched by the plague moved away from medieval cities and towns to unaffected areas. This was the negative impact. On the positive side, some landlords began to concentrate on improving the fertility of the soil. And back in the cities, the declining population of workers meant that masters sought out new ways to produce which required less manpower. That is, they began to construct labor saving machinery. In other words, an act of God produced a greater need for technological innovation.
Meanwhile, the prices of agricultural products increased. This inflation of prices stayed high until the end of the century when prices began to fall. But because agricultural laborers were scarce, having been wiped out by famine or by the plague, they began to demand higher wages which were necessary because of the high price of goods. Landlords sought new ways to increase their incomes. One way was to increase rents, which they did. Another way was to find a crop which would yield higher returns and they found this crop in the raising of sheep. So landlords in England began to convert land which was traditionally held by the peasants in common into enclosed property upon which sheep would be raised. And the raising of sheep, though lucrative, is not a labor-intensive proposition.
One reason why the number of farm laborers decreased was the plague. But another, equally important reason, was that many serfs now chose to commute their labor services by money payments, to abandon the farm altogether, and to pursue more interesting in rewarding jobs in the skilled craft industries in the cities. This new vocational option was made possible by the Black Death.
Agricultural prices fell because of lowered demand, and the price of luxury and manufactured goods -- the work of skilled artisans -- rose. The nobility suffered the greatest decline in power from this new state of affairs. They were forced to pay more for finished products and for farm labor, and they received a smaller return on agricultural produce. Everywhere their rents were in steady decline after the plague.
Masters and merchants petitioned their governments to intervene and around 1350, the governments of England, France and Spain began to fix prices and wages which, of course, was favorable to employers and not to workers. For instance, in 1351, Edward III of England instituted the STATUTE OF LABOURERS which forbade employers to pay more than customary wages and require that all laborers accept those wages. The Statute ordained that:
The bottom line is that the English government had given into the demands of the landlords by fixing wages. As a result of the Statute of Labourers, English inflation began to subside. The Statute was not a success, however, and the labor shortage hastened the end of serfdom and paved the way for the disorders that followed under Edward's successor. The cause of the peasants was defended effectively in a vernacular verse satire of Edward's reign, THE VISION CONCERNING PIERS PLOWMAN, which denounced the corruption of officials and of the clergy.
The decline in populations and inflation deeply disturbed 14th century Europe. The previous two or three centuries had been remarkably stable on the part of the laboring classes but the 14th century began to witness numerous peasant and urban revolts against the oppression of the propertied classes. This was something completely new and developed from a local circumstances made worse by famine and the plague.
In 1323, the landlord's attempt to impose old manorial rights and obligations infuriated the now free peasants of Flanders. As a result, the peasants revolted, a revolt lasting five bloody years. In 1358, French peasants took up arms in protest against the plundering of the countryside by French soldiers during the 100 Years' War. Perhaps 20,000 peasants died in this uprising known as the JACQUERIE.
The most spectacular of all the 14th century peasants was the English Peasants' War. In 1381, the English peasants revolted, angered over legislation like the Statute of Labourers, which tied them to the land and imposed new taxes. One of these taxes, the poll tax, was particularly troublesome. A whole or head tax is a tax levied on individual simply because he exists. In 1380, the English government issued a new poll tax, the third in just four years. Meanwhile, landlords were constantly increasing rents on their land, lay and to which the peasants was now tied by the Statute of Labourers.
In 1381, and under the leadership of heroes such as WAT TYLER and Jack Straw, the peasants marched to London in order to present a petition to the king. 60,000 strong, the petitioned called for the abolition of serfdom, tithes and the game laws as well as the right to freely use the forests. The peasants also demanded that the poll tax be abolished. John Ball, a priest who spoke regularly to the people gathered in the marketplace, expressed the sentiments of the revolt in the following way:
Workers in the cities, especially London, rose in support of the peasants and their demands. Richard II, then only fourteen years of age, offered to meet the peasant demands. Under the command of Wat Tyler, the rebels camped at Blackheath where they waited for word from Richard II. The king agreed to meet with the rebels but the crowds that had assembled made it difficult for him to land at Greenwich. The frustrated rebels attacked the prison at Marshalsea and Richard returned to his mother at the Tower. The rebels plundered Lambeth Palace, burned books and furniture, crossed London Bridge and joined the London mob. They made their way to Fleet Street, opened the Fleet prison and, according to Froissart's Chronicles:
The Savoy Palace, home of the King's uncle, was burned to the ground. The Tower was under siege. On June 14, Richard looked down upon the mob from his room in the Tower and managed to arrange an interview with the rebels at Mile End where, among other concessions, he granted their requests for the abolition of feudal services and their right to rent land at an agreed price. Some of the rebels returned home. But for those who remained near the Tower, violence was about to escalate.
The king had advised Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, to seize the opportunity to escape. But as the plan unfolded Sudbury was recognized by the rebels and the London mob smashed their way into the Tower. One historian has described the event in the following way:
The next day (June 15), Richard II again met with the rebels. At the Smithfield conference further concessions were granted the rebels: the estates of the church would be confiscated, all lordships except the kings would be abolished, and all the rebels would be pardoned. Wat Tyler rode up to the king, his "horse's tail under the every nose of the king's horse," made the mayor of London lose his temper. He knocked Wat Tyler off his horse with a broadsword and as Wat lay on the ground one of the king's squires stabbed him in the stomach, killing him. The English Peasants' War was over. Wat Tyler's head was cut from his corpse and displayed on London Bridge. John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of Richard II and his quarters were displayed in four other towns as a warning to other rebel. Jack Straw was executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. The promises made to the rebels by Richard II were quickly withdrawn although the poll tax was abolished.
Social unrest afflicted workers in towns and cities as well as the peasants in the countryside. Governments, controlled as they were by the wealthiest nobility, made every attempt to fix prices and wages as well as regulate the movement of workers in their country. The most typical and most significant of these urban revolts was the Ciompi rebellion of 1378.
Florence was the wool manufacturing center of Europe. Perhaps one-third of the city's population was engaged in a trade directly related to the manufacture of wool. Florence was also one city hit hard by the Black Death and it was because of this that manufacturers cut back on production thus putting workers out of a job. The poorest workers were denied entry into guilds and when connected with price and wage fixing, the situation for these poor souls grew intolerable. The name Ciompi was given to those skilled workers who were engaged in the carding of wool (carding is that process in which were raw wool is cleaned and straightened prior to twisting into yarn and was at this time, a hand process). As skilled workers, the carders demanded various reforms of their masters. For instance, they demanded that employers had to insure them work, that they would not do anything injurious to the workers and finally, that employers would permit workers their right to enter a guild. By 1382, the wealthy manufacturing families of Florence put down this rebellion of skilled workers by force and the Ciompi or forced to accept all previous arrangements.
The primary issue of these revolts, both those of the countryside and the city, was not misery, hunger or poverty. Instead, the primary motivation for these revolts was specifically moral -- peasants and skilled workers were routinely denied certain rights. What we are beginning to see in these episodes is the emergence of the worker's right to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with their employers, a right which we perhaps take for granted today.
There is one final event which marks the 14th century as a Calamitous Century. If plague and famine weren't enough, 14th century Europeans also suffered from numerous wars, lengthy wars which destroyed both town and countryside. To deprive an invading army of food, it was not at all unusual for the peasants to burn their fields. The invading armies also destroyed farms in order to destroy the morale of the peasants. Plunder by discharged soldiers was also common.
In earlier centuries, wars have been generally short and small in scale. In the 14th century, a new trend developed. The most destructive war was a series of conflicts between the English and the French known as the HUNDRED YEARS' WAR, a war which raged off and on from 1337 to 1453.
Because of increasingly complex feudal contracts, English kings and ruled parts of France and conflict between the two monarchies was common. The arrival of feudalism in the eighth and 9th centuries had been a major step toward European stability after the fall of Rome. But feudalism, based as it was on a legal contract, rested on a delicate balance. The personal relationship between lord and vassal would only succeed if all members of the partnership remained faithful to their obligations. By the 14th century, there were a number of forces which upset this delicate balance.
In 1328, the Capetian dynasty in France came to an end with the death of Charles IV, the son of Philip the Fair. An assembly of French barons gave the crown to Philip VI of Valois, the nephew of Philip the Fair. Of course, Edward III, king of England, asserted that he in fact had a superior claimed to the throne because his mother was Philip the Fair's daughter. This, then, was one of the primary causes of the Hundred Years' War. Imagine -- an English king the king of France as well!
Another cause of the Hundred Years' War was clearly economic conflict. The French monarchy tried to squeeze new taxes from towns in northern Europe which had grown wealthy as trade and cloth-making centers. Dependent as they were on English wool, these towns through their support behind English and Edward III.
To make matters worse, war had become a more expensive proposition in the 14th century. Larger, healthier and better-trained armies were needed. Most governments began to rely on paid mercenaries to do their fighting for them. The problem with mercenaries is that they were expensive to obtain an even more expensive to retain. More often than not, the mercenary had no allegiance to anyone king and fought for the highest bidder. Furthermore, mercenaries were a competitive and quarrelsome lot. To counteract the high price of war, European monarchs imposed even more taxes upon the people. The French were most adept at this: there were taxes on salt, bread, and wine as well as taxes on the rights to use wine presses, grindstones and mills. And of course, there was the poll tax.
The last cause of the Hundred Years' War was factional conflict. By the 14th century the European nobility had become diluted with men who had entered the nobility not because they had a claim by virtue of birth but because of their wealth. Meanwhile, the older nobility was losing income due to declining rents. Many older nobles joined forces with mercenaries in order to maintain their position and status. Other nobles married into wealthy families while still others tried to improve their situation by the buying and selling of royal offices. What all this boiled down to was conflict.
Nobles tended to join factions united against other factions. These factions included a great family, their knights, servants and even workers and peasants on the manorial estate. They had their own small armies, loyalties and even symbols of allegiance. The bottom line is that these factions were beginning to form small states within a state and contributed not only to the overall violence of the 14th century but also to the need of monarchs to keep their nobility under constant surveillance. This explains why Louis XIV, the Sun King, housed his nobility at Versailles -- it was so he could keep an eye on them.
The most pressing issue during the Hundred Years' War was the status of Aquitaine, a large province in southwestern France. According to feudal law, Edward III held Aquitaine as part of his fiefdom. Philip attacked this territory, claiming it was rightfully his. Edward's response was to join forces with the Flemish in 1337 and this was the principal cause of the war.
The war, fought entirely on French soil, raged off and on for more than 100 years. English victories were followed by French victories, then a period of stalemate would ensue, until the conflicts again rose to the surface. During periods of truce, English and French soldiers -- most of whom were mercenaries -- would roam the French countryside killing and stealing.
After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, won by the English under Henry V, the English controlled most of northern France. It appeared that England would shortly conquer France and unite the two countries under one crown. At this crucial moment in French history, a young and illiterate peasant girl, JOAN OF ARC (c.1412-1431), helped to rescue France. At the age of 13 she believed she had heard the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret bidding her to rescue the French people. Believing that God had commanded her to drive the English out of France, Joan rallied the demoralized French troops, leading them in battle. Clad in a suit of white armor and flying her own standard she liberated France from the English at the battle of Orleans. Ultimately captured and imprisoned by the English, Joan of Arc was condemned as a heretic and a witch and stood trial before the Inquisition in 1431. Joan was found guilty and was to be burnt at the stake but at the last moment she broke down and recanted everything. She eventually broke down again and faithful to her "voices," decided to become a martyr and was then burnt at the stake and became a national hero.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis