Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Economic Change and Social Tension in the Late Fourteenth Century

Steve Muhlberger
In the 1370s, English society was under a great deal of  tension.

There were:

Political problems resulting  from the lack of an undisputed leader and from the failure of the war effort.

Religious problems  due to lack of spiritual leadership from the church, complicated by the same war pressures, which introduced the divisive issue of clerical taxation into relations between clerical and lay politicians.

In the same decade of the 1370s, there were other social and economic problems:   Landlords (a class that included almost all rich and important people) and their peasant tenants were set against each other, because economic change had made the social structure of the 12th and 13th centuries  obsolete.

The background

The thirteenth century was an era of expansion. Population, agricultural production, commercial activity, and prices for commodities had all been rising since the eleventh century at least. Landlords did well. Land was scarce and labor was plentiful; thus prices for agricultural good and rents were high, while wages were low. There was profit to be made in exploiting the rights most lords held over their peasant neighbors -- rights to labor services, death duties, restrictions on marriages to outsiders.

Management by literate professionals became the norm on big estates, and some of the lesser ones.

An era of "high farming" (intensive investment, specialization, close supervision by the owner).

After 1315, this pattern was disturbed. 1315 was the beginning of the first major famine England and western Europe had seen in a long time. Many people who had been living at the bare subsistence level died. Thereafter the population continued to decline, perhaps because peasants began to marry later and limit the size of their families. The great expansion had come to an end. A long recession, in which markets shrank and prices fell, began.

The greatest single shock was  the Black Death or bubonic plague of 1348-49, which may have killed a third of England's population.  It is difficult to measure the psychological component of this catastrophe, But economically, the plague, following on the earlier decline changed the whole shape of society.

The prosperity of the earlier period. had been based on constant expansion. The upper classes in particular had benefited from their monopoly of scarce resources and the cheapness of labor. In the second half of the 14th century, labor became the scarcest resource, while everything else dropped in price. Food and other agricultural commodities became cheaper because the market for them was smaller. Rents were lower, because the return on land was less and there were fewer people competing for it.

The new economic climate spelled opportunity for the peasant survivors of the plague.

Of course this situation frightened all landlords. Their income was dropping at precisely the time that wages were soaring. In 1349, almost immediately, the king's council issued an ordinance forbidding wage raises. Two years later, parliament passed its first notable economic legislation, the Statute of Laborers of 1351.

Wages were pegged at the pre-plague level, and all landless men under sixty were compelled to accept work at those rates. A man's own lord had first claim on his services. Agricultural workers were forbidden to leave their masters before their contracts were up, and no other master was to hire them if they did.

There was also a rather weak and unspecific attempt to regulate prices, but as usually happens, the price controls were an immediate failure.

The wage controls were somewhat more successful. The people who agitated for this law, the people who were in charge of enforcing it, and the people who benefited were all the same, and they put a great deal of effort into keeping wages down and workers in their place.

In the long term, of course, legislation could not reverse the economic trend. The landlords themselves undermined the statute in bidding against each other for labor. But the statute and the attitude behind it did make adjustments a difficult matter. Peasants and other workers wanted to take maximum advantage of the new situation. They wanted the freedom to sell their labor for the highest price.

Workers increasingly resented the lords. They were not desperate for land or work as their ancestors had been in past decades -- they knew they could make it on their own. Out of such perceived injustice come revolutionary ideas. The late fourteenth century saw a phenomenon that had been rare before -- the refusal of peasants to render lords the services that were demanded. In other words, strikes.

The situation in the 1370s

The conflict with the peasantry added quite a bit to the tensions of the 1370s. The landlord class, to which almost all taxpayers belonged, was being pressed from above and below at the same time. Their discomfort led to an attempt to change the taxation system to give them some relief at the expense of the poor.

By the late fourteenth century, the scutage, or tax on military fiefs, was long obsolete. Besides the tax on wool export and other tolls, the main type of levy was a wealth tax that fell heaviest on landowners.

During the 1370s, the landowners who sat in parliament were sure there must be a better way to raise money. They tried innovative taxes on the church, and they were equally willing to experiment on the laity. Thus in 1377, a head or poll tax was devised. Every lay person over the age of 14 was to pay 4 pence, substantial amount for a poor person.

It was not a popular tax. The unfairness of everyone, rich or poor, paying the same amount bothered some people. Taxpayers were also aggravated by tax collectors grilling them about their personal circumstances. Politically prominent people ignored those complaints; they were mainly bothered by the inefficiency of the tax. The government needed more money for the war, and allowing the rich to get off cheap seemed foolish.

In 1379, a graduated poll tax was introduced. The fact that the rich paid more, or were supposed to, did not stop the grumbling, and the tax still yielded less than Parliament and the king's council had hoped for.

When the financial crisis deepened the next year, 1380, Parliament went ahead with a third poll tax.  . Once again, rich and poor were to pay the same and  the tax rate was jacked up:  In 1381, every lay person above the age of 15 was to pay one shilling, 12 pence, three times the rate of the first poll tax of 1377.

The parliament was not unaware that this was ruinous for the poor, whose family income was often 20 shillings a year or less. A family with two adults would have to pay ten percent of their yearly income. The parliamentarians reassured themselves that the rich would, as a matter of what we might call noblesse oblige, help the poor to pay. Also instructions were given to collect the tax in installments: two-thirds by January of 1381, one-third by the following June.

These minor adjustments did nothing to stem public discontent. People refused to cooperate with the tax collectors, and up to a third of the adult lay population succeeded in avoiding the tax.

The London collectors reported to the Exchequer that they couldn't do their job without stirring up dangerous agitation. The king's council told collectors to put on the screws and collect the whole tax at once, and now. It was a fatal mistake.

In June of 1381, commissioners following the instructions of their superiors sparked off a rising at Brentwood in Essex.

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Essex, like East Anglia and Kent, was an area where the unfairness of the tax was especially evident. These counties had many small free and near-free landholders,  well placed to take advantage of the new economic conditions,  who resented the harassment of manorial lords who tried to enforce their remaining right -- perhaps more than some people who suffered under greater disabilities.

The poll tax was the last and greatest of upper-class harassments. In a southeastern village, there was often no great man in residence who might feel some obligation in meeting the local tax bill. Everyone was in much the same economic position, and equally vulnerable to financial ruin. It was these villages, full of resentful people with obvious common interests, that united to defy outsiders.

The rising quickly spread from Brentwood to other Essex villages. Soon the rising was general in Essex. Nor was it confined to that county. Quite independently there was a tax revolt in Kent. The two sets of rebels were soon in contact with each other, and peasant armies from those areas converged on London to make their demands known.

Despite the standard upper-class prejudice against the peasants, we can see that the peasants had a quite sophisticated political consciousness. They were not striking out blindly in rage, nor were they only concerned with the wrongs inflicted on them, though these were of course near the top of their agenda. Their view of the current political situation was much the same as that held by the knights and burgesses who sat in Parliament.

Peasants were angry about the recent military setbacks. The war was going so badly at this time that the coast was suffering raids from French and Castilian ships. The peasants of the southeast were at personal risk because of the government's failures. When the men of Kent marched to London, they first decided that everyone living near the sea should stay at home to defend the coast. They did not want to leave the country helpless before its foreign enemies.

The peasants were also angry about the continuing financial crisis. They, like parliamentarians, were sure that mismanagement and corruption were behind the problem. The men of Essex picked out the property of the royal treasurer to be pillaged. The men of Kent told the monks at Canterbury that they should elect one of themselves as archbishop, because the current one, who was royal chancellor, was a traitor, and they were going to London to behead him.

The peasants felt themselves to be by right members of the political community, with an interest in affairs of state.   All the rebels thought they had a right to speak and a right to act. This attitude lay behind the social demands that the rebels made:

The depth of peasant dissatisfaction, and the confidence of peasants that they could do something for themselves, is the remarkable aspect of the Rising of 1381.

There were several other outbreaks as news of the first risings spread. Peasants took it upon themselves to demand freedom from villeinage, especially from oppressive ecclesiastical landlords.

The climax of the Peasant's Revolt was in London, where the original two groups converged.  The young king Richard II (14 years old) was was forced to do something by the incapacity of his ministers, and personally negotiated with the two rebel groups from Essex and Kent -- they were camped separately on opposite sides of the Thames outside of London.

The Essex men largely dispersed after Richard promised them charters of emancipation -- which shows that most rebels were willing to settle for less that total revolution. Wat Tyler, the leader from Kent, wanted more, but at a critical moment he overplayed his hand, and was killed. At that moment Richard cooly declared to the rebels "I am your leader" and this prevented a massacre.  They were dispersed and went home.

Once the threat to London was over the government was free to restore the status quo ante. None of the promises made by the king were kept.  The French peasant revolts of the previous generation (at the height of the war there) had been met with mass repression.  In England, the government was (and could be) more restrained.  A number of the major leaders were executed, and other rebels must have been killed out of hand. But the government was happy to let things return to normal without a demonstration of its potential for ferocity.

Results of the Peasants' Revolt

The effects of the Peasants' Revolt were several. Poll taxes fell out of use. Otherwise, it is remarkable for making almost no difference in the long term economic and social development in England. The rebels had failed to throw off the remnants of villeinage in a moment. But the repression of the rising did nothing to stop the decay of old institutions. In the fifteenth century, most peasants would attain a de facto freedom from personal servitude, though as we will see later, this does not mean that they lived happily ever after. Landlords by and large ceased to manage their estates in the old way, and were content to collect rent only rather than attempt to enforce labor services and other servile payments. And the labor laws fell out of use because everyone preferred a freer market in labor.

Perhaps this general loosening would not have happened so easily if the landlords had not had a good scare.

The crisis of 1381 had a considerable ideological impact. Even before the rebellion, John of Gaunt had decided that his pet academic, John Wyclif, had gone too far in attacking the doctrine of transubstantiation. The revolt ended the duke's willingness to attack the church.  The anti-clericalism of the peasants made anti-clericalism suspect.

In 1382, the government, the bishops, and even the friars, who were shocked by Wyclif's doctrine of the Eucharist, combined forces to discipline those Oxford theologians who were sympathetic to Wyclif. This ended the possibility of an easy alliance between court and anti-papal clerical reformers.

Yet Wyclifism was not dead.  Though Wyclif never tried to attract a popular following, his influence and ideas were reaching a broad public by an underground route. Both learned and unlearned clerics were attracted by his vision of a less ritualistic, less hierarchical church.

The learned men adapted Wyclif's writings and translated them into English; more importantly they created the first widely available English translation of the Bible.

The unlearned clerics hit the road, as did some of the learned ones, bringing their message directly to the people under the noses of the bishops.

Anti-clericalism was still popular enough that the commons in parliament, suspicious of ecclesiastical authority, prevented the new archbishop of Canterbury from hunting out these heretics when there were only a few of them. The movement that became known as Lollardy thus got a head start on its enemies. Nor was it only poor people who listened to this heresy.

The survival and spread of Wyclif's heresy, an unprecedented phenomenon in English history, was symptomatic of the divisions remaining in that society.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.