The Black Death had a catastrophic impact as it swept across Europe in the 1340s. Approximately 30-60% of people in Europe where killed and when it arrived in England it was no more merciful.
The Death Toll
The pestilence arrived in England, in 1348 and first hit the South West and particularly the port of Bristol. Here, as in other towns the slum like conditions made for a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria, and over the next two years the disease spread like wild fire. Whole towns and villages were laid waste.
For the people of the time this must have felt like the coming of Armageddon. If you caught the plague, you were almost certain to die. By the time the plague moved on, Britain’s population had reduced by between 30% and 40%.
Though the plague left in 1350 it came back many times over the next century. In 1361 it was particularly devastating, as a new form of the disease appeared to have evolved which had a particular tendency to attack young men. Not only was England’s population being decimated, but so too was its capability to recover afterwards. In the years after the 1361 outbreak, reproduction rates were low and so the population was slow to recover.
However, the dramatic population reduction had a number of different side effects. The first was to dramatically decrease the working population, which put those who survived in a strong bargaining position.
The Economic Consequences
Labour was in huge demand which meant peasants could go where the pay and conditions were best. For the first time, the balance of power was shifting in the direction of the poorest in society. In the immediate aftermath, the cost of labour increased.
The reaction of the elites was to use the law. In 1349 the Ordinance of Labour was published which limited the freedom of movement for peasants around the country. However, even the power of the law was no match against the power of the market, and it did little to stop the lot of peasants improving. It meant that peasants were able to improve their station in life and become what’s known as yeoman farmers.
This new found independence encouraged the peasantry to become more vociferous in standing up for their rights. They were helped by a radical preacher John Wycliffe who believed the only religious authority was the Bible over and above either a King or a Pope. His followers, known as the Lollards became ever more vocal in demanding greater rights.
In 1381 the introduction of a poll tax sparked all out rebellion. Led by Watt Tyler the peasants marched on London and rampaged through the city. Although this rebellion was eventually quelled and Watt Tyler killed, it was a land mark point in English history. For the first time the ordinary people of England had risen up against their overlords and demanded greater rights. It would not be the last and England was forever changed.