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22.06.03 Bailey, After the Black Death

22.06.03 Bailey, After the Black Death

The impact of the Black Death on English economy and society has been intensely debated by medieval historians. Some consider it to have been the most significant event of the later Middle Ages, and a cause of substantial social and economic upheaval. Conversely, others suggest that its impact was limited. Bailey’s book seeks to nuance this debate. The book makes two contributions to the existing scholarship. Firstly, it reassesses the position of the agrarian sector on the eve of the Black Death. Secondly, it uses that to contextualize its immediate aftermath, with particular focus on the period 1350 to 1375.

The first chapter introduces the book’s key thesis. Bailey argues that seigneurial control had already weakened in the period before the Black Death. As a result, there was already more freedom in the labor market than has often been assumed by scholars. Secondly, Bailey proposes that the period 1350 to 1375 has been relatively neglected in the existing literature, which has tended to fast-forward to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. However, during 1350 to 1375 there were renewed outbreaks of plague, harvest failures, and episodes of animal disease which limited the ability of society and the economy to recover from the plague of 1348 to 1349.

Chapter 2 examines how the land, labor, capital, and commodity markets operated in the early fourteenth century. There were, Bailey argues, a number of inefficiencies in those markets that posed barriers to growth on the supply side and limited consumer demand. This context is significant, Bailey suggests, because it meant that institutional changes introduced as the result of Black Death had the potential to create a more efficient system and improve standards of living.

The response of government and seigneurial lords to the Black Death is analyzed in chapter 3. Bailey’s expertise on the medieval peasantry means that a detailed re-examination is undertaken of the actions of lords. Building on the argument in the opening chapter, Bailey suggests that seigneurial authority was already diminishing before the Black Death. In the immediate aftermath of the 1350s, Bailey proposes that “coercive tactics” by lords were the exception rather than the norm. The majority continued to operate according to established practices, for example giving preference to heirs when allocating unoccupied holdings. Government policy was arguably more rigid, with a focus on limiting physical movement and social mobility. However, Bailey suggests that this policy ambition was too “ambitious” to fulfil in its entirety.

Moving from the focus on politics and the society in the preceding chapter, Chapter 4 examines the economy in the period 1355 to 1375. This chapter presents evidence that economic recovery after 1348 to 1349 was hindered by subsequent outbreaks of plague, animal disease and crop failures. Accessing seed corn and replacement animals was as, if not more, challenging than accessing labor. Bailey proposes that the pre-existing mobility of labor enabled baking, brewing, and textile manufacture to swiftly readjust. Nevertheless, he notes that consumer demand during this period was primarily focused on accessing the necessities of food, drink, bedding, and clothing. Consumers may have been able to afford to purchase items of slightly superior quality in those categories after the Black Death. However, economic conditions remained too volatile, and the shortage of skilled craftspeople too high, for there to be significant demand for, or supply of, luxury goods.

The causes of the Peasants’ Revolt are the focus of chapter 5. Bailey emphasizes a new cause, namely the lack of standardization in the exercise of royal justice at a local level. This was partly the result of the crown’s willingness to lease out the operation of the hundred courts. In such cases, the hundred court would be run not by a royal official but by an official appointed by the lease holder. The pressure to recover the cost of the lease and make a profit resulted in some dishonest practices, including deliberately altering the court locations at short notice in order to make money from fines for non-attendance. Lack of precision in the drafting of royal regulations, including the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers, made workers vulnerable to prosecution, since full definitions of terms such as “hired openly” or “hired privately” were not provided. It also resulted in variation in how the clauses were interpreted by officials in different locations.

After the volatility of 1350 to 1375, did the situation stabilize in the final quarter of the fourteenth century? In chapter 6 Bailey suggests that it did, but not until the mid-1390s. He proposes that conditions in the agricultural sector remained challenging during the late 1370s and into the 1380s. As a result, even after the events of 1381, some landlords began to reinforce labor services and restrict mobility of their hereditary serfs. Their actions were supported by central government. By c. 1395, however, agricultural production levels were more consistent and corresponded with enhanced industrial output.

The concluding chapter identifies five major changes caused by the Black Death. The first two relate to the agricultural sector: the decline of villeinage and the greater use of “contractual tenures” in relation to peasant land and the leasing of demesnes. Thirdly, there was an increase in GDP per head and some redistribution of wealth amongst the population. The final two changes relate to governance. In the aftermath of the Black Death social and economic policy and the “provision of justice” became centralized to a greater degree. In addition, state involvement in the operation of labor markets increased, with efforts made to encourage greater participation in the workforce. Rather than advocating a lack of impact or a fundamental one, Bailey suggests that the Black Death created a situation of “dislocation” which “opened possibilities for change.”

This book will be of interest to medieval historians in general, given that the topic of the Black Death is referenced not only in economic and social history but also political history, history of medicine, and religious history. Given the emphasis placed on reassessing the evidence, it would have been beneficial to have seen a little more elaboration of the source based used. An extension of the discussion of the causes of pre-plague stagnation and of seigneurial weakness would also have been helpful. The introduction summarizes existing interpretations of the Black Death succinctly, but it would have been useful to have had a slightly longer second chapter. The book is predominately focused on the agricultural sector. This is valuable and relevant, given that is where much of the disruption is considered to have occurred. It also draws on Bailey’s extensive knowledge of the topic. As an urban historian, I would have been interested to have seen greater discussion of the impact in towns too, and whether Bailey felt that this should also be reassessed. Perhaps a direction for future research could be the creation of a complementary companion volume focused on towns.