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The rural aftermath - The effects of the plagues.

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Introduction

THE RURAL AFTERMATH The effects of the plagues differed from one region to another according to the forms of agriculture practised and local economic conditions. So we should be very careful about making broad generalisations. As one might expect the kill rate was lower in the countryside than it was in the towns, but it was still significant. In a selection of Essex manors hit in 1349 the range was between 25% at Market Roding rising to 54% at High Easter. Medieval Essex was highly manorialised and close to the main trade routes out of London and along the Essex coast and therefore more vulnerable. Overall rural mortality is thought to have been around 30% for those parts of Europe affected by the 1348 plague.. This however is not the end of the story. Between 1349 and 1369 recurrent bouts of the plague removed 80% of the pre Black Death population at Coltishall in Norfolk. These are catastrophic figures which must inevitably have affected the whole economic scene. Societies cannot afford to lose populations on this scale and recover overnight. Economic recession was inevitable. There were a number of collateral phenomena which added to the immediate impact of the 1348 Plague. The inability of the survivors to bury the dead has already been noted. In the countryside people died in the field and ditches and were left to rot. But humans were not the only victims. Knighton noted that in 1348 there as a also a great murrain of sheep everywhere in the realm "so that" he says "in one place more than 5000 sheep died in a single pasture, and they rotted so much that neither beast not bird would approach them"...."Sheep and oxen strayed through the fields and among the crops, and there was none to drive them off or collect them, but they perished in uncounted numbers throughout all districts for lack of shepherds because there was such a shortage of servants and labourers. ...read more.

Middle

For the English peasants, then, the plagues initiated a process of social restructuring within existing, or at least recognisable, social groupings passed on from the old feudal hierarchies within the manor, concentrating lands in the hands of a few wealthy peasants who then dominated the village community. The French Chronicler Froissart, not a reliable source, talks of the Peasants Revolt as " a great mischief and rebellion of the common people, by which deed England was at a point to have been lost without recovery. There never was realm nor country in so great adventure as it was in that time, and all because of the ease and riches that the common people were of, which moved them to this rebellion." This is a curiously modern view, that rebellion occurs not when things are at their worst, but when they are getting better. What the leaders of the revolt wanted was the removal of the last feudal landlord limitations on their own potential for economic advancement. The ability of peasants to take more direct control of their own agriculture was aided by the increasing availability of what we would now call shire horses (a side effect of selective breeding of heavy horses for warfare) which were much more productive and manageable than the old ox teams. It was thus possible for peasants to break up the great fields into smaller units which they enclosed and managed for themselves, more like the kind of tenant farms we are familiar with today. There were also soldiers both peasant and noble returning from the Hundred Years War with profits and pillage which they could invest in land and equipment. These changes obviously weakened the communal organisation of the pre plague villages, but it also reduced for the time being the powers of command which English lords could exercise over entire communities and left the surviving villages better able to determine their own lives and especially to decided which crops to grow for the best results. ...read more.

Conclusion

[ff 55 Duby p 521] Nicholas Campion's family had held this land at least as early as 1286 and he was the last survivor of his line. His story is probably typical of many free peasants who survived the plagues. He inherited a bundle of lands from several dead relatives, his landlord attempted to take them from him, but the courts found in his favour. He was just the kind of free peasant who was likely to prosper into the fifteenth century. The description of his lands which accompanies the court case also reveals that even at the end of the fourteenth century marginal land was being brought into use albeit for sheep runs. Postan and the agrarian historians who follow him generally regard the fourteenth century as a period of decline in agriculture, part of a wider recession starting well before the Black Death.. This is certainly true if we consider agriculture in purely economic terms. The cash turnover was definitely much less than it had been in the thirteenth century at the peak of the boom. For Postan the late fourteenth century saw a restructuring of agrarian practices along lines which were already apparent at least thirty years before the Black Death. Especially in the transition to leasehold tenures and away from feudal labour services. Others, especially Bridbury have argued that there was genuine economic growth in the late fourteenth century. More recent historians have reemphasised the crucial role not just of the Black Death, but of the subsequent plagues in preventing the recovery of population levels to the critical mass at which they could sustain an expanding economy comparable with that of the thirteenth century and precipitating a fundamental change in the structure of lordship and agrarian society. After 1348, and especially after the 1380's things were never to be the same again. Substantial economic growth did not come until the sixteenth century and it depended, as it did in the twelfth century, on the response of the towns to the mid fourteenth century crisis. ...read more.

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