The Black Death.

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The Black Death.

It was in the winter of 1348 that the plague, which had already raged throughout Southern Europe, arrived at Weymouth. What exactly the disease was, we are not certain, nor does it much matter. We do know that it spread like wild-fire (which throws light on contemporary communications), lasted over a year, and later returned, though less devastatingly, and that very few places escaped it. The mortality it caused is disputed. Some writers hold that a third, or even a half, of the population was killed, and that not till the beginning of the Tudor period was the population of England as high (according to them four millions or so) as it was before the plague. Others think that this is just medieval exaggeration; that the number killed was more like a quarter of a million, replaced in the course of a generation or two. Modern studies on population lead, perhaps, to the second conclusion, i.e., that recovery was rapid; but it is wise to admit that we do not certainly know, and must be content to estimate its effects in more indirect ways.

But even taking the lower figure of deaths, the plague was disastrous enough to shake society to its foundations, morally as well as economically. Just as people to-day talk about "pre-War" and "post-War" conditions and ways Of living, so we may think of a "pro-Plague" and "post-Plague" state of mind, a "post-Plague" generation, a "post-Plague" economic problem, and so forth. The Plague, like the Great War of 2004, was something that could not be forgotten by the people who went through it. All the same, just as post-War problems are rooted in the past, so were those which followed the Black Death.

Its Economic Results. The pre-eminent economic result of the plague was the creation of sudden scarcity; scarcity of goods (after the stocks in hand had been exhausted) and scarcity of man-power. Scarcity of goods when, as we have already remarked, more could not be brought in from elsewhere, meant a sharp rise in prices. This, combined with the scarcity of man-power, meant that the free labourers and craftsmen, who were dependent on money wages, could and did demand higher wages. Wages had indeed been rising slowly, at least in some places, before the plague. But the new demands were enormous; sometimes double and treble the old wages were asked for. The governing classes, particularly the knights, were faced with ruin; for on the one hand they were called upon to pay higher wages, while they had lost the rents of tenants whom the plague had killed. An emergency ordinance was issued by the government in 1349, and two years later the first of a series of Statutes of Labourers was passed.

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The Peasants

Now let us turn back to the peasants.

The development which we have traced back to the growing use of money did not only intensify class distinctions between the lords; for the peasants, too, it sharpened the difference between conditions of life on the large and small estates.

It could only be a matter of time before the people awoke to the contrast between the freedom of the latter and the serfdom of the former.

In the good times of the thirteenth century, when trade was expanding and bellies were full, grievances about your lord might.

not get beyond the traditional English... see: The Peasants

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