A Changed Society

MATTEO VILLANI, a Florentine historian, wrote of the disillusionment that filled the survivors of the Black Death: “Those few discreet folk who remained alive expected many things, all of which, by reason of the corruption of sin, failed among mankind, whose minds followed marvellously in the contrary direction. They believed that those whom God’s grace had saved from death, having beheld the destruction of their neighbours . . . would become better-conditioned, humble, virtuous and Catholic; that they would guard themselves from iniquity and sin and would be full of love and charity towards one another.

“But no sooner had the plague ceased than we saw the contrary. For since men were few and since, by hereditary succession, they abounded in earthly goods, they forgot the past as though it had never been, and gave themselves up to a more shameful and dis­ordered life than they had led before. For, mouldering in ease, they dissolutely abandoned themselves to the sin of gluttony, with feasts and taverns and delight of delicate viands; and again to games of hazard and to unbridled lechery, inventing strange and unaccus­tomed fashions and indecent manners in their garments. . . (60)”

As Villani came to realize, the plague and its effects led most people to display, not their best, but rather their worst qualities. This was true in all the countries which had suffered: “Men thought that, by reason of the fewness of mankind, there should be abun­dance of all produce of the land. Yet, on the contrary, by reason of men’s ingratitude, everything came to unwonted scarcity and remained long thus; nay, in certain countries… there were grievous and unwonted famines. Again, men dreamed of wealth and abundance in garments . . . yet, in fact, things turned out widely different, for most commodities were more costly, by twice or more, than before the plague. And the price of labour and the work of all trades and crafts rose in disorderly fashion beyond the double. Law-suits and disputes and quarrels and riots rose elsewhere among citizens in every land. . . (61)”

In England an immediate effect of the Black Death was a breakdown of law and order. People took advantage of the confusion and distress to rob the survivors and pillage the homes of the victims. In the village of Rewe, in Wales, two brothers, Madoc and Kenwric Ap Rind “came by night in the Pestilence to the house of Aylmar after the death of the wife of Aylmar and took from the same house one water pitcher and basin, value one shilling, old iron, value fourpence. And they also present that Madoc and Kenwric came by night to the house of Almar in the village of Rewe in the Pestilence, and from that house stole three oxen of John le Parker and three cows, value six shillings (62).”

William of Dene was worried, too, by the spirit of revolt among the labourers and the selfishness displayed by the clergy: “The people for the greater part ever became more depraved, more prone to every vice and more inclined than before to evil and wickedness, not thinking of death nor of the past plague nor of their own salvation . . . Priests, little weighing the sacrifice of a contrite spirit, betook themselves to where they could get larger stipends than in their own benefices, on which account many bene­fices remained unserved. Day by day, the dangers to soul both in clergy and people multiplied. . . The labourers and skilled work­men were imbued with such a spirit of rebellion that neither king, law nor justice could curb them (63).”

The Church of England had suffered heavy losses among its clergy. John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, died in August, 1348. His successor, John Offord, died in May, 1349, before even being enthroned. He was followed by Thomas Bradwardine, who died the following August. Many priests had died, too, and Knighton spoke disparagingly of the middle-aged widowers who were ordained to take their places: “There was everywhere so great a scarcity of priests that many churches were left destitute, without divine service, masses, matins, vespers or sacraments. A chaplain was scarcely to be had to serve any church for less than £10 or 10 marks, and whereas when there was an abundance of priests before the pestilence a chaplain could be had for 4, 5 or 11 marks, with his board, at this time there was scarcely one willing to accept any vicarage at £20 or 20 marks. Within a little time, however, vast numbers of men whose wives had died in the pestilence flocked to take orders, many of whom were illiterate, and as it were mere laymen, save so far as they could read a little, although without understanding (64).” (A mark was worth two-thirds of £1.)

William Langland, in his poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, gives a vivid picture of contemporary life. He condemned those clergy who left their parishes and committed the sin of simony by buying better posts as priests who sang masses in London (65):

Parsons and parish priests pleynëd [complained] them to the bishop,

That their parishes were poor sith [since] the pestilence-time,

To have a licence and a leave at London for to dwell,

And singen therefor simony, for silver is sweet.

In an attempt to stop this abuse, the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that priests must serve their own churches and receive moderate payment: “The general complaint reaches us, and that effective teacher, experience, shows us, that the priests now surviving, not considering that they have been preserved from the perils of the late pestilence to perform their ministry for the sake of God’s people . . . not caring to undertake such cure, or bear the burdens pertaining to it, and betake themselves to the celebration of annuals and other private masses.

“And, not contented with the accustomed stipends, they exact excessive payment for their services, so that under an unpretentious name, and with but light labour, they may claim more profit than if they had cure of souls . . . It will come to pass, unless their unreasonable appetite be restrained, that many churches . . . will remain utterly destitute of the services of priests (66).”

As most teachers were clerics, the deaths among the clergy brought about a far-reaching change in English education. Until then, as John Trevisa explained, school children were taught in Norman French: “Children in school, against the usage and manner of all other nations, are compelled to leave their own language, and to learn their lessons and their things in French, and so they have since the Normans came first into England. Also, gentlemen’s children are taught to speak French from the time that they are rocked in their cradle, and can speak and play with a child’s brooch. And uplandish men will liken themselves to gentle­men, and try easily to speak French (67).”

Now, there were so few teachers who could teach French that English was studied in its place. This change was pioneered by John Cornwall, a grammar school master: “This manner was much used. . . For John Cornwall, a master of grammar, changed the custom in grammar school, and construction of French into English; and Richard Pencriche learned from him bow to teach it to other men of pencriche, so that now in the year of our Lord 1385… in all the grammar schools of England, children leave French and construe and learn in English.

“And they have thereby an advantage on one side, and a disadvantage on the other. Their advantage is  they learn their grammar in less time than children once did; the disadvantage is that now children of grammar schools no more understand French than their left heel, and that is harmful for them if they should cross the sea and work in strange lands and in many other places. Also, gentlemen have now much to do to teach their children French (68).”

An important outcome was an Act of Parliament in 1362 ordering the law courts to use English instead of French: “It is often shown to the King by the prelates, dukes, earls, barons, and all the com­mons, what great mischiefs have happened to many persons, because the laws, customs, and statutes of the realm are not commonly known, by reason that they are pleaded, set forth and judged in the French tongue, which is too unknown in the said realm. So that people who plead or are impleaded in the King’s courts and others, have no knowledge or understanding of what is said for or against them by their sergeants or pleaders…

“The said laws and customs would the sooner be learned and known, and better understood in the tongue used in this realm, and so everyone could better conduct himself without breaking the law, and better safeguard his inheritance and possessions. And in various other regions and countries where the King and the nobles and others of this kingdom have been, there is good governance and full right is done to all men, because their laws and customs are learned and used in the tongue of the land…

“For the above causes the King has ordained and established that all pleas which shall be pleaded in any of his courts before any of his justices. . . or before any other of his ministers, or in the courts and places of other lords of the realm, shall be shown, pleaded, defended, answered and debated in the English tongue. . . And they shall be entered and enrolled in Latin (69).”

To the universities the Black Death brought gains; the great shortage of learned men led to the foundation of new colleges to train new scholars. Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained why he founded Canterbury College at Oxford: “Those who are truly learned and accomplished in every kind of learning have been largely exterminated in the epidemics, and that, because of the lack of opportunity, very few are coming forward at present to carry on such studies. . . (70)”

In the countryside, depopulation caused long-lasting problems. In 1352 the patrons of two local churches at Great Colington and Little Colington jointly petitioned the Bishop of Hereford to unite their parishes: “The sore calamity of pestilence of men lately passed, which ravaged the whole world in every part, has so reduced the number of the people of the said churches and for that said reason there followed, and still exists, such a paucity of labourers and other inhabitants, such manifest sterility of the lands, and such notorious poverty in the said parishes, that the parishioners and receipts of both churches scarcely suffice to support one priest (71).”

Knighton told what this shortage of labour meant in the farms and fields: “In the same year there was a great murrain of sheep everywhere in the kingdom, so that in one place more than 5000 sheep died in a single pasture; and they rotted so that neither bird nor beast would approach them. There was great cheapness of all things, owing to the general fear of death, since very few people took any account of riches or property of any kind. A horse that was formerly worth forty shillings could be had for half a mark, a fat ox for four shillings, a cow for twelve pence, a heifer for six pence, a fat wether for four pence, a sheep for three pence, a lamb for two pence, a large pig for five pence; a stone of wool was worth nine pence.

“Sheep and oxen strayed at large through the fields and among the crops, and there were none to drive them off or herd them, but they perished in remote byways and hedges in inestimable numbers …There was such great scarcity of servants that none knew what to do. For there was no recollection of such great and terrible mortality since the time of Vortigern, King of the Britons, in whose day, as Bede testifies, the living did not suffice to bury the dead (72).”

When harvest-time came, even higher wages could not produce enough men to gather in the crops: “In the following autumn a reaper was not to be had for less than eight pence, with his food, a mower for less than ten pence, with food. Wherefore many crops rotted in the fields for want of men to gather them. But in the year of the pestilence, as has been said above, of other things, there was so great an abundance of all kinds of corn that they were scarcely regarded (73).”

Landlords began competing for tenants and labourers, and had to offer better terms than before: “After the pestilence many buildings both great and small in all cities, towns, and boroughs fell into ruins for want of inhabitants . . . In the same way many villages and hamlets were depopulated, and there were no houses left in them, all who had lived therein being dead . . . It seemed likely that many such hamlets would never again be inhabited. In the following winter there was such dearth of servants for all sorts of labour as it was believed had never been before. For the sheep and cattle strayed in all directions without herdsmen, and all things were left with none to care for them.

“Thus necessaries became so dear that what had previously been worth one penny was now worth four pence or five pence. Moreover the great men of the land and other lesser lords who had tenants, remitted the payment of their rents, lest the 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 according as they could come to an agree­ment with them.

“Similarly, those who had let lands on labour-rents to tenants as is the custom in the case of villeins, were obliged to relieve and remit these services, either excusing them entirely, or taking them on easier terms, in the form of  small rent, lest their houses should be irreparably ruined and the land should remain uncultivated. And all sorts of food became excessively dear (74).”

A note on the Court Roll of the manor of Rudheath shows how a landlord had to yield to his tenants if they threatened to go elsewhere: “In money remitted to the tenants . . . by the Justices of Chester and others, by the advice of the Lord, for the third part of their rent by reason of the plague which had been raging, because the tenants there wished to depart and leave the holdings on the Lord’s hands unless they obtained this remission until the world do come better again, and the holdings possess a greater value: £10 13s 11d (75).”

When taking new tenants, it became common for a landlord to agree a lower rent until he could find a tenant willing to pay more. The Prior of Durham, for example, had to do this: ” 1366. Burdon. One messuage and three oxgangs of land, which had been Nicholas Ben’s, are assigned to William Smyth, John of Heswell and Robert Dines, to have and to hold until another tenants who shall be willing to take the land and pay the old rent, viz. forty shillings per annum; the payment to be given at Whitsuntide under pain of loss of all the land which they hold from my lord prior. And be it known that they shall pay, for the first three years, by his grace, thirty shillings per annum (76).”

Another arrangement was to charge tenants a higher rent, but remit some of their feudal services. The Abbot of Eynsham in Oxfordshire did this on his manor of Woodeaton: “In the days of that mortality or pestilence which was in the year of our Lord 1349, there scarce remained two tenants on this manor, and these would have departed unless brother Nicholas of Upton, who was then abbot of the said manor, had made a new composition with them and with other tenants who came in.

“He agreed with them in the following form; namely that the said Walter and other tenants should be subject to certain dues; relief, heriot, merchet, and a certain amount of forced labour and that he should also pay a yearly rent of 13s 4d so long as it may please my lord abbot; and may it please my lord to perpetuity, for the afore­said services from which he is now released were not worth so much as this 13s 4d; yet, let the lords any other time do as they think to be most profitable in their own circumstances (77)”.

But it was not only the landlords who suffered from the de­population of the countryside. The peasants, too, were growing very discontented. As we shall see in the next chapter, this was soon to come to a head.