Background and Perspectives on the Statute of Laborers




The Black Death and the plagues of the 1360s and 1370s probably reduced England's population by between 40 and 50 per cent, and although vacant holdings were swiftly filled on English manors the consequent dislocations included sharp changes in the relations between employers of labour and labourers, between lords and peasants. These changes offered opportunities for landless labourers, craftsmen, and many peasants, opportunities to improve the extremely vulnerable existence on the margins of survival led by their ancestors in the previous 150 years. These opportunities were bad news to the gentry. This bad news included a fall in the value of their rents, a relative fall in the price of agricultural commodities (but not in the cost of luxury manufactures and imported commodities), and a sharp rise in the price of labour-power, the effect of demographic collapse following the Black Death. Indeed, increases in labour-costs of over 60 per cent were not uncommon in England. These factors benefited the drives of larger peasants to accumulate holdings, but they also strengthened the bargaining position of those who sold their labour-power. This certainly helped the mass of poorer families who depended on such employment, and it increased the discontent of those forced to serve their lords rather than sell their labour-power on the market. (Note that market represented freedom.) The knightly class or, as historians already find it appropriate to call the landed class below the level of magnates, the gentry (lay and ecclesiastical) responded in Parliament as well as on their estates. They passed and repeatedly affirmed a statute which as Skeat observed 100 years ago is mentioned more than once in the sixth passus of Piers Plowman: namely, the Statute of Labourers (1351). It recalls the 1349 labour ordinances: 'Against the malice of servants who were idle [preciouses] and unwilling to serve after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages.’ But now, the Statute complains:

          such servants completely disregard the said ordinances in the interests of their own ease and greed [couetises] and ...

withhold their service to great men and others unless they have liveries and wages [liueresons et lowers] twice or three times

as great as those they used to take ... to the serious damage of the great men [grantz] and impoverishment of all members of

the said commons [commune].   (Dobson 1970: 64)

How familiar such stuff has become! Across the centuries we recognize the high moral language, the outrage, the complaints of 'impoverishment', so many classic marks of ruling-class ideology. For that is what it is -- the specific material interests of a small social group (about 2 per cent of the population) are claimed to be in the interests of 'all', to be the 'common profit', universal material and moral interests.


David Aers, from Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing, 1360-1430 (Routledge, 1998), 26-27



But the economic and social consequences of the fourteenth-century plague were enormous and well documented. Prior to 1348 medieval Europe was beginning to suffer from a Malthusian crisis -- an imbalance, that is, between population and food production. There were recurrent famines in the first half of the century, especially in 1314-1320, there was little land available for new cultivation, and the traditional feudal structures of lordship and obedience were under strain. The plague shifted the balance of power dramatically and hastened the end of feudalism as a social and economic system. Before the plague land and food were scarce while labor was abundant and demand was voracious; after the plague the situation was exactly the opposite: there was lots of land, far fewer mouths to feed with a now plentiful agricultural crop, and a severe shortage of labor. This situation empowered both the unlanded laborer and the tenant, both of whom could now negotiate with their landlords for better terms; and it threatened the incomes of those landlords, who were of course the ruling class of medieval England.


Their response was to pass restrictive legislation. As early as 1349 Parliament enacted the Ordinance of Labourers, and followed it up in 1351 with the Statute of Labourers. This legislation restricted the right of a tenant to leave his manor, compelled him to accept work when it was offered to him, forbade employers from offering wages higher than those in force before the plague, codified the wages of artisans in the towns, and fixed the prices of agricultural goods. It is a matter of dispute among historians whether these laws achieved their purpose; but everybody agrees that the effort to enforce them resulted in exacerbating the social friction -- or let's be blunt and call it by its rightful name, class warfare -- that had always marked the relation of landlord to tenant under feudalism. Perhaps the best way to describe the situation in England is like this: the plague was a demographic catastrophe but for the vast majority an economic bonanza; it created bright prospects and rising expectations among the poorer and especially middling members of society; the repressive legislation passed by the ruling classes frustrated those expectations; and the result was an explosion. This explosion occurred in 1381 with the so-called Peasants' Revolt, better known as the Rising of 1381 -- an extraordinary event that had little lasting political effect but that traumatized the ruling class. The Rising had a short but complex history. Its most intense moments were a march into London by rebels from Essex and Kent on June 13 (which was, not coincidentally, Corpus Christi Day -- a day usually set aside for processions and rituals organized by the town's most powerful members in order to celebrate the order of the community), the burning of the London palace of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt; and the beheading of (among others) the Archbishop of Canterbury. The rebels were also particularly concerned to burn legal records that could be used to enforce serfdom and, where possible, to kill lawyers.


Lee Patterson, “Chaucer” (lecture)