Impact of the Black Death on the Medieval Economy

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Impact of the Black Death on the Medieval Economy

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Published January 23, 2008 by:

Matthew Recker

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Evidence of wages, prices and rents can tell us a great deal about the impact of the Black Death on the medieval economy. It can be seen that after the death of so many people a vacuum was created enabling labourers to

 negotiate better terms for prices, rents and wages. Through the negotiations and changes recorded by contemporaries we are able to see just how the economy was impacted. The upper class would fight back and make laws to restrict the power of the working class and limit their ability for negotiation and price gouging, but it was never completely effective. The ultimate effect of the Black Death was to change the economy from self-regulating to government controlled, even if the government could not enforce the laws very effectively.

Prior to the Black Death, the economy was saturated.[1] The buyer or entrepreneur and what they were willing to offer determined wages, prices and rents. With the Black Death, came a huge vacuum in the workforce. Suddenly, workers and their goods were in much higher demand, enabling those who survived to be in a much better position for negotiation. "The economic performance, was…profoundly altered in this period."[2] Wages rose, as did prices, while rents lowered. Evidence supporting this can be found in contemporary sources.

Workers knew that they had the upper hand after the plague. "The falling number of renters and workers increased the strength of their negotiating position in bargaining with landlords and entrepreneurs".[3] All they had to do to ensure favourable treatment was to subtly remind their landlords of that fact. Often, a good way to remind the landlords was by threatening to leave. "At the time of the mortality or pestilence, which occurred in 1349, scarcely two tenants remained in the manor, and they expressed their intention of leaving" unless a new agreement was made with them.[4] The tenants used this to their advantage to gain rights they had not had before. Most of the things they gained were more frivolous but they were able to place themselves into the court and lower the amount of work required from them.
Workers and labourers in the field were not the only ones to renegotiate for better circumstances. Priests did so as well. The priests "have been so infected with the sin of greed that, not satisfied with reasonable

 wages, they hire themselves out for vastly inflated salaries."[5] People of all walks were seeing the opportunity for stronger bargaining power, and they were seizing it to earn themselves higher wages. The priests may not have been looked upon kindly for their desires of increased wages, but they were not unlike many other people in society in renegotiating for better circumstances.

With a decrease in workers there were more uncultivated lands. Farms were left un-worked, and vineyards uncultivated because of the shortage of labour.[6] Fewer lands being worked meant that there would be less to sell at market. Once again this produces a change in favour of the working class. With less to sell and the demand around the same level, the price of corn and other foods goes up. However, the common person did not get their food from market, they ate what they grew, so any food they were able to sell would make them that much more money.[7] The period after the plague was a seller's market for items that were grown and produced by the lower class.

However, it was a buyer's market where rent is concerned. One of the chief forms of income for the upper class was through the rent they collected from tenants. With so many people dead they saw a drastic decrease in the rent they were able to collect. People were less willing to pay the same rates when they realised that they could leave their current holdings and rent from someone else for cheaper because that person would appreciate collecting any amount of rent for land that might be otherwise without a tenant. There were some land holdings that were able to sustain themselves through the Black Death, but there are some "manors whose holding remained vacant for decades and experienced a severe loss of revenues."[8] With such bleak possibilities many landlords would accept much lower rent than they had previously because less rent is better than no rent.

It would appear that the reaction to the plague would greatly increase the wealth and power of the working class in medieval civilisations, but, ultimately, that would not be the final outcome. The upper class was not about to relinquish its position so easily. The lords did what they do when a situation becomes sticky for them: they made laws.

The law they made was to ensure the traditional. The laws were "directed to the problem of retaining traditional society in the wake of demographic catastrophe."[9] The laws were made to protect the wealthy and

 keep the workers from rising above themselves. The Black Death was a huge threat, economically, to the lords. If they did not act, they would have to take lower rents and pay out more wages, they would not be able to maintain their previous lifestyle.

The Statute of Labourers would be the law to restrict the working class. The statute starts out by addressing the problem of increased wages. "Many people, observing the needs of masters and the shortage of employees, are reusing to work unless they are paid an excessive salary."[10] The writers say that they are worried about the problems that would arise from workers demanding exorbitant amounts of money for work. There is a need for people to fulfill certain roles. Workers are needed to farm and cloth makers are needed to make cloth. By charging high rates they are affecting society in a negative way. Their greed is hurting others when their product is needed to sustain life.

The lords therefor restrict the workers. They set standards and limits.

We have ordained that every man or woman in our realm of England, whether free or unfree, who is physically fit and below the age of sixty, not living by trade or by exercising a particular craft, and not having private means or land of their own upon which they need to work, and not working for someone else, shall, if offered employment consonant with their status, be obliged to accept the employment offered, and they should be paid only the fees, liveries, payments or salaries which were usually paid in the part of the country where they are working.[11]

As the lords saw it, there was work that needed doing and it was a matter of survival that it is done. By requiring everyone capable of work to accept work offered them they made sure that workers demanding unfair wages would not extort lords. The lords wanted to maintain the wages and rents they had become accustomed to, so they could no longer allow a limitless, self-regulating marketplace.
The Statute goes on to specify that any worker demanding excess pay should be arrested and charges brought against them. Also, it was forbidden for workers to leave their employment without good cause, or else risk

 imprisonment. The term of their sentence would be entirely up to the convicted, "to remain in close captivity until they offer security that they will accept employment under these conditions".[12] They would be held until they could reasonably ensure that they would return and accept the work they had been imprisoned for rejecting. It was a very one-sided law against the workers. When things are in their favour the lords make it illegal.

However, the workers were not the only ones punishable under this law. The lords had to abide by it as well. One of the threats to the law functioning, and indeed the main threat to any collusion, would be a rogue lord taking it upon himself to lower the rent and raise the wages he is willing to offer workers in order to attract more people to himself. He could ensure that his rents are all being paid by tenants and if he collected less, he was at least certain that he would receive at least some money for all the land he had and nothing would be left without a tenant. By paying more for workers he could ensure that he had all his needs met, even if he ended up paying more for those needs. The problem with this is that it would hurt the other lords. One lord offering more pay and less rent would ensure that his lands were full, but by filling his lands he would take workers from other lords. They would not be able to produce what they needed and by making such offers the rogue lords might inspire the workers to abandon their legal contracts and perform service for more money.

The framers of the Statute saw this as a problem, so it was made illegal.

No one should pay or promise wages, liveries, payments or salaries greater than those defined above under pain of paying twice whatever he paid or promised to anyone who feels himself harmed by t. And if no such person is willing to bring a prosecution, then the same to be paid to any member of the public who does so.[13]

When you make an agreement of this type, the worst possible problem is that someone become greedy and offer lower rents and higher wages than anyone else: it all collapses. Making it illegal was the first step to preventing it from happening, but they took it further. Without consequence, the lords would likely cheat anyway, so any offending employer is fined double what they offered the worker, payable to the party they hurt. This not only gives incentive to obey the law, but to also report anyone breaking it. If a lord feels that they are harmed, they can make up some of the lost revenue by reporting a lord that caused them to lose tenants.

However, the statute provides even more incentive to not cheat the system they had created. If no lord wants to claim grievance, for whatever reason, any member of the public could and they would collect the fine

 instead. Having to pay a fine to a commoner would probably be an embarrassment for a lord so maybe this is the harshest punishment. If the punishment stings, people are more likely to avoid facing it.

The statute was more based on restricting the workers, however, so it goes on to address other specific things that should not be done, besides demanding higher wages and lower rents. Price gouging was one of these items. With so many people dead, there were fewer items produced. As an economist would point out, that creates a situation of low supply with high demand. People want an item badly, so they are willing to pay more to get it. The statute says sellers cannot take advantage of this. Workers "ought not to receive for their labour and craft more money than they could have expected to receive in the said twentieth year or other appropriate year."[14] This highlights the change from a self-regulated economy, because in a free market economy the market decides what is a fair price. If a seller is demanding too much, they buyers will shop elsewhere. A free market will correct prices itself and come to equilibrium. The statute interferes with the market and sets prices artificially.

From the viewpoint of the framers, though, it is a necessary evil. Price gouging is dangerous and shortly after the plague the economic reaction was shock.[15] People were not sure what to expect, prices could inflate drastically if not kept in check. The lords acted and limited the prices from exceeding what could reasonably be expected for the same goods and service before the plague. They may have only been trying to maintain the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to, but there may have been true concern about protecting society from highly inflated prices.\
Another way in which they may have tried to protect society is by limiting charity. One of the problems was that many people found they could make a living as beggars, and provide for themselves enough to get by in

 their idleness.[16] The statute made it illegal to give alms to any beggar who was capable of working, but who chose not to.[17] The period after the Black Death needed to be a time of economic social recovery and rebuilding. People able to work and help, but unwilling were not to be rewarded for their sloth. By not allowing people to give them alms the beggars could no longer survive from begging alone and would be required to work, and become a productive part of society.

These restrictions to ensure the traditional may seem fine and well, if you were a noble, or restrictive, if you were a worker, but the effectiveness of the law can be questioned. Despite the laws, "wages in the towns soared, to two and even three times the levels they had held in the crowded thirteenth century".[18] In spite of their efforts they were unable to stop the changes. They may have lessened the magnitude, but the workers pressed on. There are samples of people ignoring the statute in the court records. Granted, there are many cases brought under the statute but it leaves question as to how many went undiscovered.[19] The benefit for lords to report bad workers is quite low.

If a worker demanded higher wages the lord would be in a tight spot. The lord has the law on his side but it was not very practical. If a worker threatens to leave, he has not committed any crime yet, and if he does leave it may be difficult to find him, so the lord would have to consider his demands. If he brought charges on the worker, then the worker is arrested and unable to perform work for him anyway. Most times it would be best for the lord to negotiate.

Workers were not the only ones going against the law. Employers were just as prone to take more than their fair share. Peter de Semere brought charges on William atte Merre of Merrow because he had refused to work for him when it was a fair offer of wages and rent, claiming he had no previous engagement. William denied this and claimed that he had employment by another already and that Peter knew this.[20] The case was dismissed, but it highlights the fact that both sides were trying to go around the law. The workers would go around it by demanding higher wages or else threatening to leave, and the employers went around it by trying to force people into working for them, while ignoring whether the workers they wanted were already in employment.

The effect of the statute was not to preserve tradition, but rather it evoked much change.
The overall change was from market self-regulation to governmental regulation, not as a change in economic ideologies...but simply as a matter of fact. Before the Black Death England was relatively overpopulated. Skilled labor was valued, but people incompetent in their occupation could be avoided or replaced.[21]

Previously, the markets had been self-regulating. With overpopulation there were many skilled workers to choose from. If someone was producing inferior products, a buyer could go elsewhere. After the Black Death there was a drop in the number of skilled workers and craftsmen, thus lesser quality was being accepted because of necessity. The main effect of the statute was to bring government into the marketplace. The government stepped in to set the bar for quality, to ensure that no inferior product was being sold at unfair prices.[22]

The contemporary sources on prices, wages and rents can be used conclusively to see the economic impact of the Black Death. The death of one third of the population created a huge vacuum in the economy; fewer workers were able to create fewer goods. With such a decreased supply and heightened demand for workers, their value when up. Workers were in a much better position to negotiate for better terms in their rents and wages. The lords had to react. Without some type of legislature prices and wages might have gone through the roof, with rents sinking into the basement. The Statute of Labourers provided for limited wages and fixed prices, but there was little real consequence for workers demanding higher wages, because they could always threaten to runaway and disappear. The ultimate effect of the statute was to provide quality control in goods and services, administered by the government. Before the Black Death the market was able to self-regulate, afterwards the government had to step in and make sure things were being done fairly. The Black Death impacted the economy by introducing artificial set wages and prices (even if they were worked around) and introduced government quality control.


Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester University Press. Manchester and New York. 1994.

Williman, Daniel Ed. The Black Death. The Impact of the Fourteenth-Century Plague. Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies. Binghamton, New York. 1982.

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