Serfdom was one of the defining social institutions of medieval Europe. Although its workings have been carefully studied for well over a century, many of its features and much of its chronological development remain poorly understood and difficult to reconstruct. This is particularly true with regard to its ultimate demise in the two centuries following the Black Death. Mark Bailey's new book sheds some much welcome light on the topic and is likely to lead many historians to rethink their basic understanding of the institution and its social and economic importance in the late medieval period.
Bailey's basic argument is that serfdom in England declined more quickly and more extensively in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death than has previously been understood. Most prior work on the subject has accepted that serfdom maintained its vitality until the very end of the fourteenth century and then declined in fits and starts over the course of the fifteenth century, ultimately disappearing only in the middle of the sixteenth century. Bailey, in contrast, argues for an earlier and much more precipitous decline within a generation of the arrival of the plague, reaching a point of irretrievable collapse as a system of land tenure by c. 1380. It held on as a form of personal status divorced from land tenure for another generation or so, but even as a legal status it was largely a spent force by the beginning of the fifteenth century. Scattered vestiges lingered into the Tudor period but the institution was of little social or economic significance during its final century. Rather than dying a slow and lingering death from a thousand wounds over two centuries, Bailey suggests that its effective demise should be measured in decades rather than centuries.
This argument has significant repercussions for several well-established orthodoxies about the later Middle Ages. One involves the economic ramifications of the Black Death. The standard view of the period stems from the work of A.R. Bridbury, who argued that England was so overpopulated before 1348 that even the horrendous mortality of the Black Death failed to undermine the economic structure that had been in place for centuries. Bridbury famously described the third quarter of the fourteenth century as the "Indian summer" of the old agrarian regime, suggesting that real structural change occurred only after repeated visitations of plague finally did away with the problem of overpopulation. Bailey rejects the idea that the traditional manorial regime was hardy enough to withstand the initial onslaught of plague, arguing instead that many landlords were making major changes by the early 1350s and even conservative lords were transitioning away from established modes of production within a decade or so of the plague's arrival.
Bailey's model also challenges the related orthodoxy that landlords responded to the Black Death by enforcing the rules and operating procedures of serfdom even more severely than they had in earlier periods, instituting what historians commonly refer to as the "seigneurial reaction." This interpretive position has been especially dear to historians of medieval England because it seems to fit so well with the outbreak of the Great Revolt (or Peasants' Revolt) of 1381. Dissenting views about the causes of the Great Revolt have surfaced from time to time over the past forty years, but the connection between oppressive seigneurial reaction and ensuing massive revolt has been too attractive to allow much interpretive weight to these other views. But if Bailey is right that lords were shedding rather than doubling down on their legal rights over their tenants between 1350 and 1380, then the importance of a seigneurial reaction as a central component of the revolt needs to be re-examined and more attention needs to be paid to other possible causes.
Bailey's views also have important ramifications for longstanding debates about the nature of agrarian transformation in the early modern period, often discussed in the broader literature about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Lords who were unable to find tenants for unfree tenures after the Black Death very often converted those tenures into leaseholds. Initially they may have adopted this strategy as a temporary expedient, hoping that the tenant problem would eventually improve enough to allow for a return to pre-plague conditions. But as the years and then the decades went by, the tenant shortage became worse rather than better and leases became an entrenched fixture of rural landholding. The simultaneous retreat from direct manorial production meant that much of the land formerly held as demesne also entered into circulation as leaseholds. Bailey echoes the arguments of Jane Whittle, Phillippe Schofield, and others that leasehold was a form of tenure better suited to commercial development because it was liberated from the economically-inefficient bundle of services that made up much of the standard rent agreement for customary land. The straightforward money rents associated with leasing made the connection between paying rent and generating income more transparent and more direct and helped to usher in a new mindset about land as an economic asset. Furthermore, the expansion of leasehold meant that the land market itself became much more commercialized; there was no longer a vast reservoir of land that was essentially kept off the market in the form of customary tenures and demesne. Consequently, agriculture could become a more entrepreneurial activity and England could move away from an economy defined by small holdings, inflexible tenures, and agricultural involution.
Bailey's book succeeds at several levels. It provides an excellent synopsis of relevant secondary literature in the opening section of the book, devoted to describing the key features of serfdom and summarizing how previous scholars have sought to explain its demise. Anyone looking for a reliable survey of recent work on late medieval agrarian history will find this part of the book well worth reading. Scholars with a strong research interest in the field will be particularly drawn to the middle section of the book, which presents a judicious and perceptive series of reconstructions of individual manors representing a variety of organizational types (small vs. large, gentry vs. noble, ecclesiastical vs. lay, and so on) found in two different geographical regions (east Anglia and the south Midlands). The final section of the book brings these two approaches together, drawing larger conclusions and refining the models and interpretations found in recent literature on the basis of the evidence gathered from the reconstructions of individual manors. The book's organizing principles are admirably clear from beginning to end and the writing is direct and lucid.
Rather than having the last word on the decline of serfdom in medieval England, Bailey's new book may well prove to be the opening salvo in a new debate about the topic. Bailey makes some persuasive arguments but the underpinnings of the existing models his work challenges are not so flimsy as to be swept away by a single counter-argument. Previous scholars have not been wrong to present the rejection of serfdom as a central rallying point of the 1381 Revolt and it remains to be seen how we might square the breadth and depth of the sentiment against serfdom expressed by the rebels with the argument that it was a significantly weakened institution by the time the revolt broke out. There also seems to be a disjuncture between the pace of social and economic change in the forms of landholding and the pace of legal change, especially at the level of the Common Law. It would perhaps not be too surprising if royal courts took a century or more to catch up with reality on the ground during a period of such intense change, but there is clearly much more we need to know about the details of leasehold litigation in the period before Bailey's arguments for a relatively fast ending of unfree tenures can be enshrined as the new orthodoxy. At the moment, there seems to be relatively little evidence for significant change in the land law in the second half of the fourteenth century; change is much more pronounced in the following century. Finally, we will need to know more about what was happening in other parts of the country to determine the scope and scale of the developments that Bailey has found in Suffolk and Buckinghamshire. A similar study of the west Midlands, for example, where serfdom had deeper roots and was arguably more deeply entrenched than in either of the regions Bailey examined, would be particularly helpful in this regard. Similarly, it would be productive to look more closely at areas of the country (such as Lincolnshire) where free tenures were relatively extensive in the pre-plague era. But the fact that such questions now need to be asked is a testament to the quality and importance of Bailey's work as well as an important challenge to future scholars seeking to understand the transformations of the later Middle Ages.