As I mentioned last week, if you ever get a chance to travel back in time, DO NOT go to the 14th century! If you were a noble you would have run into the mess that was the Hundred Years War between England and France. The “flower of chivalry” was lost in one of the costliest wars in history. But if you were a peasant you would have run into an entirely different set of problems. And I’m not just talking about the Black Death here.
For the lower classes the 14th century was a time of drastic changes. Change is good, yes, especially if you’re a peasant, but it comes at a price. Attitudes were changing and with them life as the common man knew it. But not everyone liked the changes.
The century before trouble began was one of prosperity and plenty. People were doing well. The weather was good, trade was increasing due to increased contact with the East, and everyone had enough. The population grew as people could afford to have larger families. But then the tipping point was reached. Agrarian technology couldn’t keep up with the increased population. There were widespread shortages. These shortages were aggravated by several years of bad weather and poor harvests. The overall temperature of Europe dropped suddenly by several degrees in the early 1300s (possibly because of a massive volcano that erupted in Indonesia, spitting ash into the sky that blanketed the Earth’s atmosphere for years). England reported massive floods of Biblical proportion that wiped out crops. There were also a series of plagues that effected livestock long before the Black Death killed off the human population. It just wasn’t good.
These were all conditions that effected the common man. Well, they effected everyone, but the blow fell much harder on the peasants. Not only could they not feed themselves, they couldn’t feed their lords. The lords needed not only food but the revenue from their lands so that they could keep up their lifestyle. A fully outfitted warhorse, for example, cost more than a peasant made in a year. So when the land wasn’t producing the lords and Parliament taxed the people to make up the difference. Only the people didn’t have anything to give. Yes, this is the era in which the Robin Hood legend first came into being.
And then the Black Death swooped in and made everything that much more miserable. Vast numbers of people died. Suddenly the equation was changed. Things were still bad for the nobility. They were still fighting a costly war, their lands still weren’t producing the amount they needed to keep up their lifestyle, and suddenly they didn’t have the manpower on their lands to make things work. Entire villages and manors were wiped out or abandoned. Records of the time in England indicated that hundreds of parishes just ceased to be after the catastrophe.
But if you were a peasant and you survived this was your lucky day. Labor was in high demand. If you were a laborer, especially a laborer with a skill, you were suddenly the most popular person in Europe. Mobility amongst the peasants reached an all-time high. And I’m talking in both senses of the word. It’s funny how you can look at the laws that were passed in any given time period and judge what was really going on. Parliament in England tried time and time again to pass laws limiting the amount of money peasants could earn for various jobs. They tried but failed. It is estimated that the wage of the common man tripled in the years after the Black Death. Landowners were so desperate for workers that they would pay anything. There were many other laws passed prohibiting peasants from leaving their hereditary estates and court records of the time are filled with cases of laborers being arrested and returned to their lord.
See, in Medieval Europe before the 14th century you, as a peasant, were tied to your land. The system of serfdom said that you belonged to your lord like any other cow or sheep. You didn’t have the legal right to move if your lord didn’t want you to. And you owed your lord labor on his land. But throughout the High Middle Ages, the 12th and 13th centuries, things had been so good that the rules were relaxed. People moved a little and as fortunes rose so did the practice of serfs paying a fee to their lords instead of working the land themselves. This became so common that by the 14th century, when labor was scarce and lords went back to demanding that their serfs stay right where they were and work their land free of charge, well, the newly empowered peasantry were not happy. Not at all.
The situation worse in England than elsewhere in Europe. In 1381 it came to a head. Parliament had voted to issue a poll tax on the people directly. This was the third such tax within a handful of years, only this one was triple the amount of the previous ones. Parliament knew no one was going to like it and skipped out to Northampton from London to avoid the inevitable wrath the move would cause. And it did cause wrath. All across England peasants revolted, especially in the southern shires. The south of England was on edge already from French invasions and rumors of French invasions due to the Hundred Years War. Within a short time the peasants rose up in a full-scale revolt.
The leader of this peasant revolt was a man by the name of Wat Tyler. Wat Tyler rallied his fellow common man under the idea that all men were created in God’s image and that no one was better than anyone else. Therefore it was unjust for laborers to be taxed to a greater degree or to serve the upper classes without pay. And yes, folks, this was the 14th century, not 1776, not 1917. Wat Tyler gathered his supporters from across England and they marched on London. Occupy London, 1381. For three days in July they protested in the streets, raging, rightfully so, that 1% of the population of England controlled 99% of the wealth even though it was the peasants who made that wealth possible.
As you can imagine, it didn’t end well for Wat Tyler. He was personally run-through by the Mayor of London. The men who had come to London to support him were either killed or severely punished. However, the end result would have made Wat proud. The poll tax was dropped and the House of Commons was spurred to support legislation that would require the crown to live off of its own income instead of taxing the peasants any time they needed money. It was a long way from modern equality, but it was a start.
On a grander scale, this was the end of the feudal system. The hierarchy of the Middle Ages could no longer be strictly enforced. Sure, there were laws and taxes and a lot of lords who were mighty upset about the state of things and it would take time to completely abolish serfdom, but the lower classes had seen how much power they had and would never again truly submit to the old order.
Of course the peasantry wasn’t the only segment of Medieval Society undergoing radical change in the 14th century. Next week I’ll talk about the craziness that happened to the Church, how the seat of Papal authority was suddenly not Rome, and the days when there was not one, not two, but three Popes all claiming to be THE ONE.