Peasant Discontent

LANDOWNERS RESENTED peasants trying to take advantage of the Landowners’ labour shortage. John Gower, who had been a well-to-do small complaints landowner, complained of their attitude: “Three things, all of the same sort, are merciless when they get the upper hand: a water flood, a wasting fire, and the common multitude of small folk. For these will never be checked by reason or discipline; and therefore, to speak in brief, the present world is so troubled by them that it is well to set a remedy thereunto. Ha! age of ours, whither turnest thou? For the poor and small folk, who should cleave to their labour, demand to be better fed than their masters. Moreover, they bedeck themselves in fine colours and fine attire, whereas (were it not for their pride and privy conspiraces) they would be clad in sackcloth as of old (78).”

He accused them of demanding extortionate wages: “The shepherd and the cowherd demand more wages now than the master-bailiff was wont to take; and, whithersoever we look, whatsoever be the work, labourers are now of such price that, when we must needs use them, where we were wont to spend two shillings we must now spend five or six (79).”

Gower looked back to the time before the Black Death when the peasants had been content with their lot: “Labourers of olden time were not wont to eat wheaten bread; their bread was of either corn or of beans, and their drink was of the spring. Then, cheese and milk were a feast to them; rarely had they other feast than this. Their garment was of hodden grey: then was the world of such folk well ordered in its estate (80).”

He called on other landowners to act before the peasants ruined them all: “Now they work little, dress and feed like their betters, and ruin stares us in the face. Meseems that the lords of this land are sunk in sleep and lethargy, so that they take no heed of the madness of the common folk. Thus they suffer this nettle, that is so violent in itself, to grow. He who surveyeth this time of ours may well fear that soon—if God provide no remedy—this impatient nettle will suddenly sting us before men do justice upon it (81).”

Edward III and his council did try to check the rise in wages while the Black Death was still raging. A royal ordinance of 1349 sought to force the able-bodied to work, and to fix wage rates at their 1346 level: “Lately a great part of the people, and especially of labourers and servants, has died during the pestilence, and some, perceiving the pressing need of the lords, and the great scarcity of servants, refuse to serve unless they receive excessive wages, while others prefer to beg in idleness than to get their livelihood by labour.

“We… have had treaty and deliberation upon this matter with the prelates, nobles, and other experienced persons assisting us, by whose unanimous counsel we have ordained: that every man or woman in our realm of whatever condition, free or bond, being able in body, and below the age of 60 years, not living in merchan­dise, not exercising any craft, nor having wherewith to live of his own resources, nor land of his own in whose tillage he may employ himself, and not serving another, if he shall be required to serve in any suitable service, considering his condition, shall be bound to serve him who required him, and shall receive only such wages, allowances, hire or salary, as were accustomed to be offered in the place where he is to serve, in the twentieth year of our reign, or in the average five or six years preceding (82).”

In 1351, the first Parliament held since the Black Death passed the Statute of Labourers. This made the labour laws more definite, and explained how they were to be imposed. Knighton told what was done to make the landowners observe them: “In the meantime the King sent notice into all counties of the realm that reapers and other labourers should not receive more than they had been wont, under a penalty defined by statute, and he introduced a statute for this cause. But the labourers were so arrogant and hostile that they paid no heed to the King’s mandate; but if any-one wanted to have them he was obliged to give them whatever they asked, and either to lose his fruits and crops, or satisfy their greed and arrogance.

“But the King levied heavy fines upon abbots, priors, knights of great and less degree, and others great and small throughout the countryside when it became known to him that they did not observe his ordinance, and gave higher wages to their labourers; taking 100 shillings from some, 40 shillings or 20 shillings from others, according as they were able to pay. Moreover he took 20 shillings from each plough-land throughout the kingdom, and notwith­standing this, he also took a ‘fifteenth’ (83).”

Steps were also taken to enforce wage restraint upon the peasants: “Then the King caused many labourers to be arrested, and sent them to prison, many of whom escaped and went away to the forests and woods for a time… Those who were taken were heavily fined. Others swore that they would not take wages higher than had formerly been the custom, and so were set free from prison. The same thing was done in the case of other labourers in the towns… (84)”

An entry in the Lincolnshire Assize Roll of 1353 shows a prosecution under the Statute of a peasant who refused to work as a serf: “The jury present that William de Caburn, of Lymbergh, ploughman, will not work except as a day labourer or a monthly labourer. And he will not eat salt meat, but only fresh meat, and for this cause he hath departed from the township, for no man dared to hire him in this fashion contrary to the statute (85).”

Langland, writing a few years after the passing of the Statute, told how many peasants were not intimidated by such measures (86):

And then would Wastour not work, but wandren about …

Labourers, that have no land to live on but their hands,

Deigned not to dine to-day on yesterday’s cabbage,

May no penny-ale please them, nor no piece of bacon,

But if it be fresh flesh or fish, fried or baked,

And that hot and hotter still, to keep the chilifrom their maw

And, but if he be highly hired, else will he chide

And wail the time that ever he was workman born.

And then curseth he the King, and all his Council with him,

That lay down such laws, the labourers to grieve.

Langland sympathised with the poorest of the peasants who faced destitution if wages stayed the same while prices rose: “The poorest folk are our neighbours, if we look about us—the prisoners in dungeons and the poor in their hovels, overburdened with children, and rack-rented by landlords. For whatever they save by spinning they spend on rent, or on milk and oatmeal to make gruel and fill the bellies of their children who clamour for food. And they themselves are often famished with hunger, and wretched with the miseries of winter—cold, sleepless nights, when they get up to rock the cradle cramped in a corner, and rise before dawn to card and comb the wool, to wash and scrub and mend, and wind yarn and peel rushes for their rushlights. The miseries of these women who dwell in hovels are too pitiful to read, or describe in verse.

“Yet there are many more who suffer like them—men who go hungry and thirsty all day long, and strive their utmost to hide it—ashamed to beg, or tell their neighbours of their need. I’ve seen enough of the world to know how they suffer, these men who have many children, and no means but their trade to clothe and feed them. For many hands are waiting to grasp the few pence they earn, and while the Friars feast on roast venison, they have bread and thin ale, with perhaps a scrap of cold meat or stale fish. And on Fridays and fast days a farthing’s worth of cockles or a few mussels would be a feast for such folk. I tell you, it would be a real charity to help men so burdened, and comfort these cottagers along with the blind and the lame (87).”

He attacked the greed of the landlords, who benefited from the Statute and were insensitive to the condition of the peasants (88):

God is deaf now-a-days and deigneth not hear us,

And prayers have no power the Plague to stay,

Yet the wretches of this world take no heed of it,

Nor for dread of death withdraw them from pride,

Nor share their plenty with the poor;

But in gaiety, in gluttony they glut themselves with wealth,

And the more they win, wealth and riches,

And lord it over lands, the less they part with.

In 1377, amid the growing tension in the country, the aged Edward III died; he was succeeded by the ten-year-old Richard II. In his first Parliament that year several petitions were presented, alleging that serfs were witholding their services from their lords, and taking part in widespread conspiracies. This petition even envisages a peasants’ revolt: “These men have refused to allow the officials of the lords to distrain them for the said customs and services; and have made confederation and alliance together to resist the lords and their officials by force, so that each will aid the other whenever they are distrained for any reason. And they threaten to kill their lords’ servants if these make distraint upon them for their customs and services. The consequence is that, for fear of the deaths that might result from the rebellion and resistance of these men, the lords and their officials do not make distraint for their customs and services (89).” Rebellion was close at hand.