The Statutes of Labourers

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The Statutes of Labourers

The intention of these statutes was to restore the old rates of payment, and these rates, both for peasants and for town artisans, were to be fixed by law. Special Justices of Labourers were established to enforce the statutes, which also provided that prices of foodstuffs, etc., should be kept at the old levels. These officials were appointed not by the manorial or town authorities but by the Crown - a step forward towards central control of the country's economic affairs. Hitherto the alnagers had been the only national officials dealing with economic matters. This central control, however, was mostly theoretical, since the Justices of Labourers were chosen from the local gentry or burgesses. These, the members of the House of Commons, were the sponsors of the new legislation. It was not really legislation in the" interests of feudalism"; it did not aim at controlling the villeins who, as we have said, still formed the most important source of labour on the big estates. It may even have been anti-feudal in intention, since a free wage market rather favoured the great lord at the expense of the smaller. The great lords, after all, had lost many of their villeins in the plague and were anxious to get more labourers, and if wages were uncontrolled they had the longer purses with which to entice them. Moreover the great lords had come to be considerable employers of hired labour, particularly on manors remote from the centre of administration. However this may be, the Statutes were a recognition, even if unconscious, that feudalism was obsolete. Soon the Crown would try its hand at regulating economic activity; a task which had proved too much for the feudal lords and their lawyers.

Apart from their interest as an illustration of changing economic policy, how far were the Statutes of Labourers successful in their object? Once again, varying local conditions make it difficult to say.' In the short run, they were probably effective in checking the first panic rise of wages, if not of prices. But in the long run they do not seem to have been more than a very inefficient brake on wage changes, and a hindrance to the mobility of labour. The shortage of labour remained such that employers themselves connived at breaches of the law, when land was going out of cultivation on every side. In the end the rise of wages was permanent, and its effects we shall consider in a moment. In so far as the Statutes were effective, they probably hampered economic recovery by the restrictions on mobility, to say nothing for the moment of the resentment they caused.

The effect of the Black Death had been to confer on the labourers who remained a prosperity (at least relatively, in a time of adversity for everyone) which the makers, of the' Statutes of Labourers sought to take away from them; it had made the villeins' burden at once heavier and less tolerable. The death of members of a villein household meant that the burden of week-work fell upon fewer shoulders. The rise in the price of hired labour meant that the villein could not hire labour to perform his allotted tasks; it was an incentive to desert the manor and seek employment elsewhere;' and it made the contrast between freedom and villeinage pointed and galling. It meant, too, that the lords were unwilling to commute services at a time when the villein was even more anxious to be rid of them. On those manors where there had been no commutation in the strict sense of the word, although the villeins had been accustomed to" buy" at least a part of their "works ", the bailiff would suddenly refuse to sell, and would demand their performance. In some cases at least an unscrupulous or desperate lord might well attempt to go. back on his commutation bargain, whether it had been made before the Death, or extorted in the first panic-stricken moments after its onset.

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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... see: The Black Death

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