Saturday, 10 September 2016

England in 1400: a society in transition

This post owes a great deal to:
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006)

'Bayleaf' Wealden Hall House
at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex.

An empty land

England in 1400 was a society still recovering from the Black Death. See here and here for more details. The plague reached Dorset in June 1348, and between a third and a half of the population died. On the evidence of the poll tax returns of 1377 the population stood at about 2.5 million, as opposed to the 4.25 million at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This was a level barely if at all higher than in 1086, and may have declined further during the fifteenth century. 

A changing society

Competition for labour: With this dramatic change in population, villages were abandoned (see here) and churches deconsecrated. In 1367 the bishop of Rochester deconsecrated the church of Dode in Kent.

The old labour-intensive agriculture was no longer viable. A new pattern of farming emerged as many previously arable lands were converted to pasture. The labour shortage transformed the status of villeins, giving them a bargaining power they had never had before. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was an attempt by parliament to fix the price of labour and set the minimum term for contracts of employment. But though the Act was strictly enforced, Parliament could do little about the fundamental economic reality of competition for labour, and the majority of landlords had to make some concession to their tenants. The Leicestershire chronicler, Henry Knighton, wrote: 

‘The great men of the land and other lessor lords … remitted the payment of their rents, lest their tenants should go away on account of the scarcity of servants and the high price of all things – some half their rents, some more, some less, some for one, two, or three years.’

The growth of a service economy: In the new economic climate, labour became more mobile. Young people, previously tied to the land, migrated in search of work and foreign workers were brought in at harvest time. This new mobility had profound social consequences, affecting women as well as men. Domestic service became an attractive work opportunity, enabling girls to acquire housewifely skills and the money that would make them attractive marriage propositions. In the late fourteenth century a third of urban households contained servants.  In the poll tax returns of 1377 30 per cent of the paying population of Worcester were domestic servants. In Yorkshire and Essex women were employed in the textile industry.  The emergence of this service economy meant that in late medieval England there were an abundance of young women in the towns and young men in the country.

The challenge to deference 

The overall picture is one of volatility and a dramatic transformation of traditional relations of deference and dependence, as the gentry attempted to use the judicial machinery of the state to enforce their interests and the peasants were increasingly outraged at the blocks to their personal freedom.  The short-term cause of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the poll tax of that year, but the longer-term cause arose out of the destruction of traditional patterns of deference and the mismatch between economic reality and the legal status of villeins.  

The revolt was a failure but the period c. 1380-c. 1430 saw a transformation in the legal and economic position of the peasantry.  Servile obligations were permanently replaced by rent tenancies, leaving villeinage as no more than a ‘ghostly presence’ (Harris). Manumission was a common feature of the first half of the fifteenth century. In 1439 the fellows of Merton College, Oxford, who were the lords of Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire, stopped using the term nativus (serf by birth) of their tenants.  Villeinage was never officially abolished – it just faded away as former serfs were becoming ‘husbandmen’ (agricultural labourers) and the parish replaced the manor as the basic institution of local government.

Improvements in diet

In the last quarter of the fourteenth century, grain prices fell and real wages began to climb.  Meat consumption increased dramatically, though it was still out of the reach of the poor, and diets as a whole became more diversified.   Fish became a more important part of the peasant diet, with deepwater herring and cod sold at inland markets along with fish from local rivers.  There was a significant rise in the consumption of ale, a thick drink brewed from barley or barley and oats that had considerable nutritional value.

Improvements in housing

The new economic order can also be seen in an improved housing stock. Most houses were timber-framed using either cruck construction or vertical posts resting on stone footings, with the walls filled with wattle and daub and the roofs thatched with barley straw. The average size of a peasant’s house seems to have increased from one to two or three bays.  Some villages had peasant aristocracies, farming up to five hundred acres and owning hundreds of sheep. Above the peasantry were the yeomanry, a class who straddled the gap between peasantry and gentry. Many of these lived in ‘wealden’ houses, with an open hall, an upper floor, and a tiled roof. 

The rising gentry

During the fourteenth century the old system of sheriffs’ courts controlled by itinerant justices was replaced when the gentry were created justices of the peace, with the power to try felonies and misdemeanours in their localities.  For the Justices of the Peace Act, 1361 see here, here and here.

Twice a year the more serious cases were tried at the assizes held by the justices and the serjeants-at-law sent from the central courts. This was a system of government that lasted in the rural areas until the end of the nineteenth century. One of the most famous fictional examples of a justice is Justice Shallow in Henry IV, Part Two.

Trade and manufacture

The fifteenth century saw a dramatic shift in the balance of trade. Up to the 1430s England’s main export had been wool. In the early fourteenth century some 39,000 sacks of wool were exported to the Flemish towns. From 1360 Calais was the Staple, from where the wool or cloth was exported to the Netherlands or the Rhineland.  However by the end of the fourteenth century the cloth trade had supplanted the wool trade in volume and value.   

The cloth trade was different in kind from the wool trade. There
Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford,
Suffolk, a classic wool church
was no Crown monopoly, no Staple, and no restriction on the market. English broadcloths clothed the urban and landed classes of the Netherlands, Germany, and central Europe and created a class of wealthy clothiers in England. One of the best known is John Winchcombe,  'Jack of Newbury', who set up the first factory in England. The clothiers' memorials can be seen in the magnificent 'wool churches' of East Anglia and the Cotswolds. In addition, t
housands of smaller manufacturers were engaged in the production of finished woollen cloth, in particular in Yorkshire, Wiltshire, the Cotswolds and East Anglia.

A golden age?

The fifteenth century has been seen as a golden age of the peasantry and certainly the standard of living in this period was higher than that for the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Villeinage was all but abolished. The population became more mobile. People were better housed and fed. Trade expanded. But the population was always vulnerable to plague, harvest failure, and the intense political upheavals of the second half of the sixteenth century. Life might be improving but it was still insecure. 

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