The Black Death
The Peasant’s Revolt was set in the context of the dramatic social changes wrought by the plague. When the Black Death came to England in 1349 it was a source of both immediate misery and future opportunity for those who survived. Estimates of the numbers who died range from a quarter to a half of the population, but whatever the true proportion it had the most dramatic effect on the organisation of society. The immediate result was a widespread transfer of property and consolidation of wealth as the lucky survivors inherited. This consolidation aided people a long way down the social scale, for a man inheriting no more than a couple of oxen and a plough was considerably better off than a man with none.
Most importantly, the country went from being one with an oversupply of labour – England prior to the Black Death was probably as well populated as it was in any time before 1700 – to a country where labour was scarce. Landowners were suddenly faced with a new economic world. They had either lost many of their workers through death or were faced with serfs who were no longer obedient and frequently absconded, often lured to work as free men by other landowners, or drawn to the anonymity of the towns. Landowners had to employ free men who demanded what were considered extortionate wages. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was a forlorn attempt to keep things as they had been before the Black Death by restricting wages but, like all attempts to buck fundamental economic forces, it failed.
It is probably not overly sanguine to see English society in the late medieval period after the Black Death as a golden age for the common man. Not only was labour scarce and land plentiful, but the great enclosure movement was still in the future and a very large proportion of the population were, to a large extent, their own masters as they worked their land. Even where labour services were still performed, they were not crushing, being commonly forty days work in a year. Moreover, agricultural work is seasonal, especially the arable, and for substantial parts of the year there is relatively little to do on a farm.
Beyond agriculture, many people had a large degree of control over their daily lives. This was the time before industrialisation, before the wage-slave and the factory. Skilled craftsmen were often their own masters, and even those who worked for a master will have organised their own time because they worked from their homes. Indeed, most English men and women today almost certainly have far less control of their time than the average mediaeval inhabitant of England.
The mediaeval good times end
But the comparatively good times for the poor of the post-Black Death world did not last forever. The enclosure movement began in earnest in the fifteenth century. Men were driven off the land and their place taken by graziers of sheep. The Tudors put an end to serious dynastic strife and expanded the power of the state. Gradually the population recovered. Trade grew and towns thrived, but it was also, by mediaeval standards, a time of high inflation caused by a mixture of a debased currency under Henry VIII, the economic consequences of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, population growth and the influx of gold and silver from the recently discovered New World.
The limits of state power
The hand of the state was also light by modern standards, especially so during the century long struggle of the houses of Lancaster and York and partly because mediaeval kingship was of necessity very limited in what it could do administratively because of a lack of funds, the power of the peerage, primitive technology, poor communications, administrative naivety and a radically different view of what government and society should be – apart from looking after his own privileges and estates, kings were expected to defend the land, put down rebellions, provide legal redress through the royal courts, maintain the position of the church and lead in war against other rulers. And that was about it.
But there was also a further check on the monarch. Perhaps the most important practical adjunct of this desire for freedom, has been that the English long hated and mistrusted the idea of a standing army as the creature of tyrants. The English were eventually content to have the strongest navy in the world because it could not be used against them, but a substantial army was not accepted as reasonable until the experiences of the Great War accustomed men to the idea. Soldiers were held in contempt before then. “Gone for a soldier” was little better than “taken for a thief”. The needs of Empire produced more ambivalence into the English view of soldiers as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” shows:
Oh, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and chuck him out the brute!
But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.
But the old resentment, fear and contempt remained until the stark democracy of experience in the trenches during the Great War tempered the English mind to tolerance of the soldier.
Because of a lack of a large standing army, English kings were ever been dependent on the will of others, be it their nobles, parliament or the gentry. Even the most practically tyrannical of English kings, Henry VIII, was most careful to use Parliament to sanction his acts.
The consequences of this weakness was that power was localised. Incredible as it may seem today, the practical governance of day-to-day life in England until well into the nineteenth century lay largely in the hands of private gentlemen occupying the post of JP, whose powers were much greater than they are today. Indeed, the central state impinged very little on the ordinary Englishman before 1914. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s “Coming up for air” reflecting on how the arms of the state touched an honest citizen before the Great War could think only of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the General Post Office.
By keeping the king dependent upon the will of others, the English ensured that a despot such as Louis X1V could not arise in England and in so doing underwrote their general liberties. Without that, it is improbable that parliamentary government (as opposed to a parliament) would have arisen. England would almost certainly have been involved in many debilitating wars for the aggrandisement of the king. In those circumstances it is unlikely that England as a modern state would have arisen.