In 1348, the Black Death hit Central and Western Europe. By the end of the century half of the population would be dead, buried in shallow graves and in many cases without record of their existence ever been registered. Particularly in England, it is the great dearth of records which alerts us as to the full scale of the calamity - an entire generation's absence from historical records is a shocking testament to the efficiency of the killer. Never had Christendom known such a scourge - the disease had entered from Asia, or from the Crimea - it matters not1. What made it so precipitous was that it struck at a time of famine in Europe, when there was a great dearth in crops and the peasants' immunity was low. Thus we see a higher rate of death amongst the poor than the rich.
At length, the pestilence retreated. By 1377 the worst of the death was past, and the laity could turn to rebuilding their temporal possessions and the clergy could turn to rebuilding the spiritual. The depths of despair for which the plague had sunk men brought about the flagellant movement, and in England a parliament dissillusioned by a corrupt and ineffective clergy was open to the attacks on the clergy and the Roman Church made by John Wyclif and his patron, John of Gaunt. As a harbinger of the Reformation, Wyclif expounded some of the Protestant doctrines which would be accepted by many two centuries later - God as by his Scripture was the final redeemer, his Word was of supreme importance, and this Word should be understood by all. In striving for the realization of the latter he and his students translated the Bible into English - for few could understand the Latin that came from behind the screen during Mass.
There was a sense of more space in the land when the plague had passed - high positions needed to be filled, and peasants suddenly found that they were no longer bound by necessity to loyalty to their traditional Lord. They could move to the best land and demand a high wage because of the dearth of people with an able body. The situation would remain the same while the population of the land remained stagnant - and for the whole of the 15th century, it did. For these hundred years not only did death rates remain high because of endemic disease in both the countryside and urban centers, but birth rates were low. In the period 1430-80, nearly 25% of men died unmarried, and of the married nearly 50% failed to leave a male heir to continue their lineage. Servile villeinage nearly died out in some areas, and rents were deferred because tenants were so rare. Between the end of the Black Death and the Battle of Agincourt, real wages doubled. All this followed what we may regard as a class war in the latter half of the 14th century, though we would be guilty of the sin of anachronism.
The landlord class was struck hard after the end of the plague, and as can be expected it attempted to strike back through law. As early as 1351, the Statute of Labourers tried to freeze wages at pre-plague levels. It began -
"Whereas late against the malice of servants, which were idle, and not willing to serve after the pestilence, without taking excessive wages, it was ordained by our lord the king, and by the assent of the prelates, nobles, and other of his council, that such manner of servants, as well men as women, should be bound to serve, receiving salary and wages, accustomed in places where they ought to serve in the twentieth year of the reign of the king that now is, or five or six years before; and that the same servants refusing to serve in such manner should be punished by imprisonment of their bodies, ..."
It continues to lay down the exact wage that various types of labourers should receive. This was the first statute of its type in England - an attempt to set economic conditions for the country as a whole. Parliament sought to enforce the laws as fully as it dared, bringing into existence special commissioners to make sure the laws were administered fully. Many thousands of cases were heard pertaining to breaches of contract, and in many we see the bias of the commissioners towards the landed classes shining through. The popular discontent of the peasantry is also well noted. In the year 1381, England experienced nothing less than open revolt. Nothing could abate the suffering of the Lords, however - a black market in labour sprung up as they tried to keep their lands under the plough. Many formally landless families were granted land and the freedom that came with it.
It would be folly to imagine that their freedom was absolute, however, or that Lords became mere lettiers with no control over the land they letted. Society at this time saw corruption as entirely normal, and had the Lords not taken an active interest in the management of their estates their income would soon have slipped. The landed classes were still the overlords, the elite - but their relationship with their thanes was slowly changing, as was their relationship with the King. This was truly the feudal system in decline, and the 'bastard feudalism' which replaced it had a much weaker code of responsibility and accountability. Many landlords were diligent enough to attain reputation for rapacity, however - some even coming close to their zealous Tudor successors.
Many turned to enclosure in an attempt to increase or at least stabilize their declining profits. By enclosing the common land to rear sheep they could increase their profits. There are several reasons for this, not least being the increased spending power of the English peasant. It has been claimed that the size of the domestic cloth market doubled, and it certainly rose as the value of the cereal market declined. Landlords could also try to escape that eternal scourge of the agrarian society - the weather. Sheep were much less susceptible to the fickle nature of the weather than cereal crops - and peasants themselves found the keeping of sheep to be highly worthwhile. The idea of enclosure as a movement contrary to the interest of the people did not emerge until the second decade of the 16th century, when over-population was starting to set in and it was thought that the sheep "eateth up men" by taking land which could be used to grow food.
In the period 1525-1601, the population of England nearly doubled. The Tudor Price Revolution was a sharp, brutal rise in prices which accompanied this rise in population, ending the Golden Age of the English Peasant. Inflation has been attributed to many factors, such as debasement of the coinage and an influx of Spanish bullion into Europe, but in Tudor England prices almost always fluctuated with population. By the end of this period the real wages of a labourer were half of what they had been at the start - never would social changes affecting so much of the population occur again until the Industrial Revolution.
1. A Flemish chronicler wrote - "...For, in Jan. of the year 1348, three galleys touched at Genoa, driven by a fierce blast from the East, horribly infected and laden with divers spices and other weighty goods. When the men of Genoa learned this, and saw how suddenly and irremediably they infected other folk, they were driven forth from that port by fiery arrows and divers engines of war..."