The Statute of Labourers (1351)
The Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351 eventually found its way to England as well, and caused a loss of lives so severe that the result was a near immediate labor shortage. Throughout the end of the century English laborers took advantage of the situation and demanded higher wages. This damaged the wealth of the landed classes who then made an appeal to the government. One response to this predicament was the Statute of Labourers issued by Edward III in 1351 and directed against the rise in prices and wages. What follows is a brief selection from the Statute.
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The King to the sheriff of Kent, greeting:
Because a great part of the people, and especially the workmen and servants, have lately died in the pestilence, many seeing the necessity of masters and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages, and others preferring to begin idleness rather than by labor to get their living; we, considering the grievous incommodities which of the lack especially of ploughmen and such laborers may hereafter come, have upon deliberation and treaty with the prelates and the nobles and learned men assisting us, with their unanimous counsel ordained:
That every man and woman of our realm of England, of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body, and within the age of sixty years, not living in merchandize, nor exercising any craft, nor having all his own whereof he may live, nor land of his own about whose tillage he may occupy himself, and not serving any other; if he'd be required to serve in suitable service, his estate considered, he shall be bound to serve him which shall so require him; and take only the wages, livery, meed, or salary which were accustomed to be given in the places where he oweth to serve, the twentieth year of our reign of England, or five and six other common years next before.
If any reaper, mower, or other workman or servants, of what estate or condition that he be, retained in any man's service, do depart from the said service without reasonable cause or license, before the term agreed, he shall have pain of imprisonment; and no one, under the same penalty, shall presume to receive or retain such a one in his service.
No one, moreover, shall pay or promise to pay to any one more wages, liveries, meed, or salary than was accustomed, as is before said. . . .
[Source: Edward P. Cheyney, ed., "England in the time of Wycliffe," in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol II, no. 5 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1898), pp. 3-4.]
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