The Black Death had a catastrophic impact as it swept across Europe in the 1340s, and it remains the deadliest pandemic in human history. Between 30-50% of the population in Europe was killed: England was not excluded from a high death toll and the devastating impacts of such a pandemic.
The death toll
The pestilence arrived in England in 1348: the first recorded case was from a seamen in the south west, who had recently arrived from France. The plague hit Bristol – a dense population centre – shortly afterwards, and had reached London by the autumn.
Cities proved the perfect breeding ground for disease: slum-like conditions and poor hygiene practices 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: untreated, bubonic plague has an 80% mortality rate. By the time the plague moved on, Britain’s population had reduced by between 30% and 40%. Up to 2 million people are thought to have died in England alone.
Clergy were particularly susceptible to the disease as they were out and about in their community, bringing what aid and comfort they could. Notably, it seems many of the higher levels of society were less affected: there are few reports of individuals being struck down, and very few individuals who are known to have died directly from the Black Death.
Many historians consider Europe – and England – to have been overpopulated in relation to its time. Repeated attacks of plague, including a particular devastating wave in 1361 which proved especially fatal to apparently healthy young men, continued to savage the population.
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
The economic effects of the Black Death were huge. Unlike before, 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 ‘yeoman farmers’.
The Black Death also brought about a halt in the Hundred Years War – England did not fight any battles between 1349 and 1355. The shortage of labour meant men could not be spared for war, and less available labour also meant less profit, and therefore less tax. War was not economically or demographically viable.
Unlike other countries in Europe, England coped with this change in circumstance: the administration proved itself to be relatively effective at managing difficult times. However, the rise in wages was met with immense resistance by the gentry.
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. Wider social unrest was also apparent as the elites grew more and more resentful of the increasing power of the working classes.
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 landmark point in English history.
For the first time the ordinary people of England had risen up against their overlords and demanded greater rights: the memory of the Peasants Revolt loomed large for those who lived through it. Serfdom was abolished shortly afterwards. It would not be the last revolution in England. The effects of the Black Death and the change in the relationship between workers and their overlords effected politics for several subsequent centuries.