To what extent did the Black Death contribute to the decline of Serfdom?

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To what extent did the Black Death contribute to the decline of Serfdom?

The magnitude and deadliness of the Black Death meant that it would forever be studied by historians. The effects were widespread and varied and have led historians to question how far the Black Death contributed to many of the changes which coincided with this pandemic. Serfdom, the social position in which peasants were bound to the Lord’s land and placed under strict rules which they had to obey through law, was common place throughout Europe during the years before the Black Death. The subsequent decline of Serfdom during this period, the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, has led historians to question whether, and if so how far, the Black Death contributed towards this decline. Historians such as Dodds and Britnell have outlined the importance of the Black Death as a cause to the decline of Serfdom, as it created upward pressure on wages and gave Serfs the bargaining power they needed to achieve changes. Hatcher does not believe such strong emphasis should be placed on the Black Death, and sees it more as a mere accelerator to changes already occurring. Alternatively, historians have maintained that other reasons caused the decline. Henneman contends it was the political development which allowed the changes to occur, whilst Lerner stresses the importance of the mentalities of the peasants after the Black Death and how this contributed to the decline. This essay will concentrate on Western Europe, as this is where the Decline of Serfdom was most prevalent, due to the fact that in Central and Eastern Europe the ties between land and peasant became stronger through this period. This essay will argue that the Black Death can be seen as a cause to the decline of Serfdom. It acted as a catalyst to already existing changes and gave Serfs the belief and power to make the changes they desired. Though other important factors may exist, it was Black Death which contributed to these factors and produced the opportunity for freedom.

The Bubonic plague dramatically reduced the population of Europe. This meant two things; Serfs and workers were now more scarce and thus more valuable, and that Serfs now had more power and influence. Another result of the Black Death was that vast areas of land had been left unoccupied  by the deceased. Britnell and Dodds explain how some Serfs were able to manoeuvre themselves to freedom by inheriting this land or merely ‘actively seeking empty holdings’. Therefore, to an extent, Serfs had the ability to shape their own destiny. They were able to demand higher wages, less working hours and ultimately freedom in the knowledge that landlords needed their labour. The shortage of labour meant they could find work relatively easy elsewhere if their demands were not met. This was shown through accounts from contemporaries who complained about the work ethic of Serfs and luxuries they could now afford. William Landlands, a landlord wrote how workers had become lazy, would break their contracts, and engage in leisure activities such as drinking and hunting. John Gower, a contemporary of Landlands, echoed these thoughts, explaining how they have enhanced their income, allowing them to buy clothes and commodities which are normally exclusive to the upper class. The landlords evidently believed that a transformation was resulting. Major characteristics of Serfdom were being challenged; Serfs were normally paid merely with land and the ability to provide for themselves and their families, what has resulted is a complete change in mentalities for the Serfs, they believe they can push for high wages, partake in leisure activities and not be restricted to a land.

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Historians such as Bridbury have argued that this has been overstated, and the impacts were not as severe as is indicated. He argues that wages did not rise, and even in such cases where they did the subsequent rises in prices meant no improvements had really been made for Serfs. Furthermore, Hatcher points out that in fact the incomes of landlords did not deteriorate, showing that even if wages had risen, it was not of detriment to the landlords and the subsequent relationship with its Serfs. However, the legislation brought in at the time provides compelling evidence to prove that wages ...

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