The Black Death: Society, Economy and Gender in England, c.1348-1420

Tutor: Jeremy Goldberg

Module type: Special Subject

Module Code: HIS00052H

The catastrophe of the Black Death wiped out nearly half the population in little more than a year. The impact on the English economy and society was profound and lasted for many years to come. In some ways it seemed to contemporaries that the world was turned on its head. People no longer wanted to be bound by their proper status in society. Even contemporary gender ideology was challenged as women came to enjoy much expanded opportunities to run businesses and to earn money. Many found themselves better off and land and work, scarce before the plague, became much more readily available. Rents tended to fall. The purchasing power of the lower orders expanded. Some scholars have indeed argued that only a century after the pandemic real wages had reached a level unrepeated until the industrial age. Lords and ecclesiastical institutions such as religious houses, who were the major landholders and the traditional elite, on the other hand, found it increasingly difficult to secure labour and tended to see their incomes eroded. Government responded by enacting laws designed impose wage and price controls and limit people’s mobility. Chroniclers bemoaned the wicked state of the world. In 1381 a major revolt in the east of England took as its rallying cry ‘When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman’. These were heady times.  

This course is designed to provide an insight into the structure of English society in these crucial decades following what people at the time dubbed the Great Pestilence. The traditional historiography has seen this as the beginning of a long period of instability and economic recession. Others have stressed the ways in which the traditional order of society was disrupted leading to social antagonism, friction, and the polarisation of class divisions. Some more recent scholarship takes a more upbeat view and places less emphasis on social friction. We will explore these debates tangentially by seeing how far the circumstances of ordinary folk below the level of the aristocratic elite and their experience of family and work can be reconstructed. Particular attention will be paid to such issues as social and economic change, conditions of labour, household, and gender.  

As a special subject, the starting point for all discussion will be the sources (made available in translation wherever possible) themselves. The period is actually surprisingly rich in documentation, but particular emphasis is placed on some that are especially valuable to the social historian. Principal among these are the records of private (instance) litigation in the Church courts, specifically the Court of York, commonly known as cause papers, the originals of which are housed here in the Borthwick Institute. These contain actual depositions of both men and women, wealthy and poor, young and old and offer the possibility of hearing the voices of ordinary people across more than half a millennium. Here we have, for example, the unmarried mother turning down work as a wetnurse because she does not want to jeopardise the life of her baby or the male apprentice pleading with his mistress against the way his master has treated him. Also explored are: probate inventories which provide a glimpse into the furnishings and living conditions of artisans and substantial peasants; poll tax returns which provide the richest and fullest demographic and economic source for any period prior to the sixteenth century; wills; coroners’ rolls relating to deaths by misadventure; guild ordinances; peace sessions' rolls; manorial and borough court rolls; and literary texts such as ‘How the Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ and ‘The Serving Maid’s Holiday’ that reflect and comment on contemporary social life.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

    • Primary Sources: reading depositions (more than one seminar)
    • The pre-plague economy
    • Primary Sources: chronicles
    • Plague, mortality and demographic recession
    • Primary Sources: labour legislation, Peace sessions, account rolls
    • Wages and prices
    • Primary Sources: manor court rolls, rural poll tax returns, coroners’ rolls etc.
    • Rural society and the economy
    • Primary Sources: borough records, urban poll tax returns, probate records etc.
    • Towns and urban society
    • Social unrest and the Peasants’ Revolt
    • Household, family and marriage
    • Social change and gender