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13.04.04, Bailey and Rigby, eds., Town and Countryside in the Age of the Black Death

13.04.04, Bailey and Rigby, eds., Town and Countryside in the Age of the Black Death

The cover of this festschrift for John Hatcher features a lovely early fifteenth century manuscript illustration of a grinning, skeletal Death pointing his spear at a knight, a king, and a prelate. For the most part, this is all we will see of Death's direct actions. Mark Bailey's clear introduction to the twelve substantial individual articles and issues provides a comprehensive summary. Most of the essays are in dialogue with Hatcher's study of the economic and demographic changes in England between 1350 and the mid sixteenth century. But list of Hatcher's publications would have helped readers appreciate how diverse and important his contributions have been to pre-industrial English history. Richard Smith's "Measuring Adult Mortality in an Age of Plague: England, 1349-1540," best situates Hatcher's work in medieval English historical demography. Otherwise, for the range of Hatcher's contributions readers look to footnotes, asides, and analytical frameworks of each contribution.

Two problems related to the initial Black Death pandemic are no longer in historical contention. First, about the level of mortality: it was big, directly or indirectly responsible for the loss of at least 40% of England's population. Second, but not at issue in this collection, the demonstrated presence of Yersinia pestis (pathogen responsible for modern bubonic plague) in London skeletal material. More relevant to Hatcher's oeuvre, the "age of the Black Death" instead identifies anomalous demographic, structural and economic aspects of late medieval England. Two more aspects of late medieval English population history are also not contested. We are sure that the population did not recover after the first three national-level waves of plague, thus a Malthusian population response to famines and epidemics did not operate. Also, consensus still holds on the timing of eventual demographic recovery: during the middle third of the sixteenth century, unfortunately a point contemporary with the earliest reliable evidence on marriage and fertility.

Knowing what happened does not explain why or how. Hatcher found that this demographically anomalous era would be best analyzed if the age were divided into three or four different intervals, as a strategy for identifying demographic and economic drivers when Malthusian models of population change fail. In each sub-period the dynamics of population and economic change could be analyzed, albeit with what Hatcher once described as "sparse and intractable data, hard to win and treacherous to interpret." [1] For example, Hatcher's analysis of mortality in a traditional English monastic house showed a prolonged mid-fifteenth century recession, evidenced by fairly dramatic decline in life expectancy. His conclusion is supported by others who looked at surviving monastic mortality registers from great monastic houses of the "age of the Black Death." When analysis moves beyond the walls of the cloister, however, similar or even supporting evidence for a general trend in rising early adult death rates vanishes into a morass of interesting problems one must face when using surviving records of this era. Several contributors characterized intervals in the fifteenth century as a documentary dark age.

Part I of the collection, "The Medieval Demographic System," contains four chapters, three of them sizeable. Each relates directly to core claims in Hatcher's work on the demographic characteristics of later medieval England. With the dramatic population decline between 1349 and the early 1370s, marginal lands once under cultivation became too labor-costly to maintain; confining the arable to better land should have produced higher seed/yield ratios, because landowners everywhere invested in livestock that would have supplied more manure and plowing capacity. Moreover the better fed human remnant population should have reproduced as briskly, it had in the high Middle Ages. It did not. Hatcher's essential argument was that understanding late medieval mortality experience was essential to demographic explanatory models-- an approach that most historical demographers find problematic and indirect at best. This first section contains the thoughtful contributions of two scholars who believe exogenous events, not driven by human choices, were responsible for the demographically anomalous era: Ole Jørgen Benedictow and Bruce M.S. Campbell. They and the other two contributors in this section, Richard M. Smith and Maryanne Kowaleski, also confront a second large issue, whether we can find continuities between the anomalous "age of the Black Death" and the preindustrial, early modern world. Parish birth and marriage registers (from the 1540s), as well as the modern research technique of family reconstitution, provide a surer footing for most later demographic history of England.

The most straightforward study here is Kowaleski's "The Demographic of Maritime Communities in Late Medieval England." Lacking quantifiable evidence, but sure of the demographic behaviors of later maritime communities, she selects groups that did not reflect the distinctive "Western European marriage pattern" (delayed marriages, nearly 20 percent of adults never-marrying, and consequently lower fertility rates) of the preindustrial era. Kowaleski asks whether the scraps of evidence that do survive from later medieval maritime communities show any marriage or fertility patterns that are recognizably different from their later reproductive behaviors. Maritime communities had high rates of early, endogamous marriages (unions within the seafaring community), but for a variety of delightfully-explained reasons did not produce many children. Nothing from the scanty fourteenth and fifteenth century evidence suggests that earlier maritime communities behaved any differently in this era.

Smith's useful historiographical contribution has been noted, and he places Hatcher's work within a carefully mapped demographic research program that stretches back to the first post-World War II decade. In a methodological section with echoes in other papers, Smith describes a labor-intensive analytic approach for more reliable use of "inquisitions post mortem" to assess life expectancy of adult males after age 20. This chapter well establishes another theme of the entire volume, addressed most especially in the long and somewhat tedious Part II: the limitations and difficulties that available late medieval sources present for resolving questions about the underlying drivers of ongoing demographic decline and stagnation before the 1540s. Smith also argues that a new epidemiological regime (recurrent plagues added to the mix of mortality-drivers) during these centuries did not likely determine a new demographic regime (Benedictow's argument). Similarly he does not appeal to the effects of extreme, adverse weather linked to overall climate change as best explaining evidence of regional crisis events or the long fifteenth century stagnation (the implication within Campbell's study).

Benedictow's "New Perspectives in Medieval Demography: The Medieval Demographic System," brings his substantial contributions to the history of the Black Death and to demographic analysis of medieval Scandinavia to Hatcher's hypothesis that mortality drove England's anomalous post-plague failure to recover. Benedictow, however, surmises not only that recurrent plague at a national level did not end with the well-known epidemics of the 1360s, but also that plague was essentially additive to a lugubrious array of nonplague epidemics and disease-ridden environments. He nicely explains what demographers call a "high pressure" environment in pre-plague England (high fertility; high mortality; early marriage) did not end until the English overall had a better grasp of, and commitment to, epidemic disease controls. Human understanding thus led to the sixteenth- century rise of population and a novel, emergent "low pressure" demographic system. This study clearly denies fundamental demographic continuities in the transition between the medieval and early modern systems. Benedictow believes that Hatcher's work shows good evidence for a unique and especially unhealthy late era within the medieval system, distinctive enough to suggest that we reconsider standard methodological approaches to historical demography, all of which are based on assessments of fertility, rather than mortality. Benedictow interestingly and usefully raises the relevance of bioarcheological evidence, thus far not well integrated with demographic studies, but he does not assess English findings of the last decade. [2]

Campbell's "Grain Yields on English Demesnes after the Black Death," appeals to a range of physical climatic evidence, such as that obtained from study of ice cores, tree-rings, and datable sediments of pollen and dust (palynology). Offering a data-driven argument for intervals of extreme weather, Campbell shows that the Black Death and its immediate aftermath in England (1349-1352) coincided with the "single most arresting" series of harvest failures over the entire period (144). Wetter summers, storm surges and recurrent plagues sufficiently explain the initial failure to re-stabilize English population and economy before 1370, but what he calls the "Chaucerian anomaly," a mostly happy period of improved climate conditions from 1376 to the end of the century did not spur the population recovery one would expect. But Campbell at this point can fall back upon his numerous and substantial contributions to every aspect of medieval English agriculture. He can thus demonstrate both protracted inter- annual variability in overall grain yields over the entire fifteenth century, and the absence of any significant improvement in seed to yield ratios. That analysis is not entirely climate-driven. Otherwise Campbell accepts Hatcher's periodization of the 1350-1540 interval by showing broad correlations to climate proxy data, finding climate as a main driver of demographic anomalies.

For readers less fluent in (or charmed by) social science analysis, Part 3 ("Trade and Industry") is probably the best place to start. The studies in this section get at the changing character of English rural life over the later Middle Ages. James Davis's "Selling Food and Drink in the Aftermath of the Black Death," presents the evidence for overall improvements to the standard of living among both peasants and landowners, finding their general gains located within two periods of demographic decline: immediately post Black Death and later in the fifteenth century. Evidence from an atypically long-surviving village market center provided Davis little that could be quantified. He instead shows that periods of adequate monetary supply saw increasing per capita consumption of food and other commodities; professionalization and specialization within the food and drink trades; and the small-town emergence of retail shops, including alehouses and inns. During periods of demographic stasis, principal village tradesmen concentrated control in fewer hands. Beginning in the later fourteenth century, they squeezed out many women living on the economic margins who once sold ale or prepared food at very small scale. At the same time prominent local burgesses relaxed fines and other punishments for violation of the lords' feudal rights in matters of trade. This "regulatory simplification in the marketplace" effectively turned old medieval fines for infractions into the equivalent of licensing fees, a process that provided estate owners a reliable income stream (395).

John S. Lee's "The Role of Fairs in Late Medieval England," is quite wonderful in gleaning elusive bits of evidence from disparate sources, all to show a transformation in peasants' traditional relationships to the marketplace. We know more about English fairs in the periods both before and after the "age of the Black Death," because the documents related to fairs in those eras present researchers more straightforward tasks. In the medieval world, royal charters were required for most fairs. By the time of the plagues the crown required ever larger revenue streams to finance the Hundred Years' War, thus turned to taxation of wool exports and to trade development of London. But the late medieval rural world disappeared from royal fiscal records. Lee shows that new specific areas of specialized production in rural markets were meanwhile, and almost literally, refashioning England with the growth of regional cloth production, since cloth was not taxed at the same heavy rates as exports of fine English wool. Similarly, buying and reworking old pewter also offered farming communities a range of newly affordable household items, and peddlers plied exotic items even in tiny towns. In one of the most interesting asides in this article Lee characterized the Ordinance of Labourers and Statute of Labourers--the famously onerous price and wage controls advanced in the wake of the Black Death--as legislation that nationalized English labor markets. Lee shows how rural fairs accommodated traditional church festival days, timing annual renegotiation of "fair" wage and land contracts and thus making these contracts open to public scrutiny. Specialized fairs highlighted regional production differences, as well as decreased the search, transportation, and regulatory costs of goods. Larger fairs promoted new (for farmers, at least) versions of a secular "leisure culture" alongside a budding shoppers' world.

Richard H. Britnell's investigation of "The Coal Industry in the Later Middle Ages," looks at a different area of Hatcher's principal historical contributions: preindustrial development of coal and metallurgy in England. For this volume he asks, did the owners of coal-rich property--in this case the bishops of Durham--seize ready opportunities for capital investment and development? The simple answer is "no," both because coastal maritime markets for the coal contracted with the collapse in population after the Black Death, and because upstream and inland the bishops could establish a monopoly over their mines. Bishops saw revenue prospects in obstructing competitors and in recovering a steady income from "wayleave" fees, exacted on those who hauled any coal over the bishops' properties. Regarding the mines as a finite resource, bishops and their agents focused on the inland areas where that income came from traditional fiscal privileges, rather than from the area where coal was most readily abundant. They acted like other large estate owners of the fifteenth century. The later boom in the coal industry (1540s), Britnell shows, came with a broader based collaboration of landowner investments, merchant and episcopal administrators, and lower class local men with unique technical skills in mining.

Finally, to the longest section, Part 2: "Landlords and Peasants." As Hatcher reminded his readers, what happened on the farms and the nearby villages determined England's population growth or decline. Even with halting attention to public health measures and urban sanitation, the metropolitan areas remained demographic sinks well into the eighteenth century. Population recovery needed to be generated at the rural level, to feed a steady stream of young migrants seeking a less agrarian, if not always prosperous, set of prospects. Five papers in this section include two well-circumscribed case studies, and three that consider the entire period. Two themes of the volume, clear enough in the other sections but particularly striking in this one, are the methodological challenges that surviving records present, and the reconceptualization of rural-world decision- making as a calculus of risk.

Erin McGibbon Smith, in "Court Rolls as Evidence for Village Society," offers a clear and very useful introduction to the study of what most scholars would find dry and unyielding documents. McGibbon Smith gives us a glimpse Hatcher's mentorship, as she zeroes in on runs of court rolls from one Cambridgeshire manor [Sutton-in-the-Isle] complete enough to permit cross-temporal comparisons. A window into the massive, multigenerational agrarian crisis underway, manor court documents nonetheless required her crafty decision-making and coding to analyze patterns of crime and punishment, and shifts in the governing frameworks of wrongdoing. Analysis of these records is so challenging that most users of manor court rolls try to follow one kind of misbehavior (such impermissible gleaning or assault) or one kind of perpetrator or defendant (e.g. women or brewers). Even though McGibbon Smith remains optimistic that a fuller long-term picture of "life on the manor" is now possible with computerization, results here will not flow like a torrent of graphs from assembled spreadsheets of limited, local studies.

David Stone's interesting "The Black Death and its Immediate Aftermath," covers the much larger fenland area (in the bishop of Ely's estates) where Sutton-on-the-Isle was, but examines a more restricted temporal interval (1346-1353). With sustained attention to what available rural records both say and do not say, he exposes some imposed fictions within official manor records. Stone offers novel ways to use records that were generated before, during and after England's worst natural catastrophe, but are of uncertain completeness. He alters the questions we bring to them. For example, account books before the plague established normal times for harvesting or selling particular crops, and the failure to harvest or sell can lead us to fairly precise dating of the peak weeks or months of the plague mortality. Plague's spread could be mapped within and across regions. Also common was the lords' agents skeptical revisions of reeves' on-the-ground reports of rents and dues, producing a "fair copy of the year's account" (217). Occasional, uncleaned account rolls, before and after the plague, capture the reeves' declaration, minutiae that Stone uses to show us the impressive extent of landowners' cognitive dissonance with the scale of the calamity unfolding. Numerical evidence generated around the crisis years, Stone shows, are not a safe empirical refuge from the uncertainties of narrative reports.

Two contributions provide those of us who are not steeped in economic history a primer in economy-driven population change theory. John Munro redirects us from Malthus to Ricardo, focusing debate about the post-plague population decline onto the expectation of increased labor productivity. By calculating real as opposed to nominal annual agricultural prices and explaining why labor wages more slowly readjusted to decline in consumer prices, Munro shows that most landowners would have fared better had they made an even greater shift from agrarian to pastoral farming. Few, however, had enough capital to invest more substantially in livestock or wool production, even if inclined to take such risk. With the exception of the wool trade, in rural England fifteenth-century landlords failed to re-impose feudal labor services, and in futility resorted to strategies for maintaining steady incomes. To some extent Munro also appeals to events "exogenous" to the demographic system, unpredictable in their timing or the extent of their damage. In his view population decline became irreversible through the effects of a sizeable, Europe-wide "bullion famine," persisting from around 1370 to the 1420s. Monetary shortages aggravated the attempts of landowners and peasants alike to reach equilibrium prices and wages for labor and agricultural produce.

Phillipp Schofield focused his contribution on the region of England that first captured Hatcher's attention: Cornwall. Hatcher found the area emerged earlier than most of England from the protracted depression because diversified regional production could weather the political, economic, and consumer fluctuations of the era. The Duke of York's Cornwall estates shifted to tinning when those markets surged, falling back to fishing, cloth trade and dairying when tin sales declined. The Duke's Cornwall manors also showed atypical land hunger (higher rents) and the ability to attract a younger labor force. Schofield's piece, "The Arundel Estates and the regional economy in fifteenth-century Cornwall," dampens some of Hatcher's companion hypothesis that Atlantic and Channel Cornwall regions fared differently, by showing that equally extensive and dispersed Arundell family holdings varied from manor to manor in their economic successes across the century. Two conditions led particular Arundel estates to suffer: those that lacked any direct connection to proto-industrial production centers (whether stannaries, cloth-making, or maritime fishing), and those led by reluctant landlords, unwilling to invest resources on the repair of buildings, granaries, walls and other infrastructure.

Even though he begins his analysis with a detailed review of thirteenth-century agricultural management treatises, Martin Stephenson's "Risk and Capital Formation and Seigneurial Investment in an Age of Adversity" funnels readers toward one reason we want to know so much about landlords and peasants in the "age of the Black Death." We know what comes after this period. Not only was it an era in which English demographic evidence shows the novel Western European marriage pattern, it was the earliest age of sustained European capitalist investment ventures, the period of European proto-industrialization. Moreover England was the earliest state to extract and apply fossil fuels for both industry and domestic uses. Stephenson is not willing to subscribe to a discontinuous shift from one system of production to another. However adverse to landlords the century after the Black Death was for landowners, capitalist investors did not emerge suddenly out of the cauldron of aristocratic adversity. The roots were already in place: Munro finds hints of Marx's "book-keeping farmers" in the moralizing agricultural treatises of the high middle ages. Moreover he finds medieval investors were high risk-takers, even when reacting to completely unprecedented economic calamities. In pointing out that pastoral farming was always the riskier choice for late medieval estate managers, Munro dismantles commonplace assumptions that conservative, status-driven medieval landlords were risk averse. Even with lived memory of devastating livestock epizootics during the 1310s, [3] landlords re-invested heavily in livestock both before the great plague, and afterwards, when weather anomalies and the acute loss of skilled pastoral labor made the survival of young animals precarious. As profit margins closed, they invested in buildings, weirs, walls and mills right up to the point in the early fifteenth century when adversity led them into to bankruptcies and leasing.

While the fifteenth-century "dark age" in available English documentation limits how much more the enormous and sophisticated labors of medieval demographic and economic historians cannot resolve longstanding debates about the era, promising new directions and methodologies appear throughout this volume.



1. John Hatcher, "Mortality in the Fifteenth-Century: Some New Evidence," Economic History Review 39:1 (1986): 22.

2. For example Roberta Gilchrist's Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Woodbridge, MA: Boydell Press, 2012), synthesizes earlier studies, and provides skeletal evidence of prolonged adolescence. Young adults in Britain reached sexual maturity in late teens or even early twenties, suggesting that poor nutrition contributed to maturational delays. Davis's chapter the only other than Benedictow's to point out the importance of using archeological evidence to constrain the number of hypotheses held viable for an era with few appropriate and quantifiable surviving sources.

3. For example see Philip Slavin, "The Great Bovine Pestilence and its Economic and Environmental Consequences in England and Wales, 1318- 1350," Economic History Review 65:4 (2012): 1239-1266.