Famine and the Black Death: Social and Economic Change in Medieval England

The fourteenth century was a significant period of economic, social and demographic changes, following several serious epidemics, which affected many parts of Europe.

It is probable that the Black Death of 1348-9 was the most significant cause of economic distress due to very high mortality rates. The key disparity in historian’s views for this period was whether the Black Death acted as a cause for transitional social change or whether the foundations of social transition had been embedded prior to 1348, thus acting merely as a catalyst.

The four books under review were all published within a twenty-year period, from 1977-1996. Whilst focusing upon slightly different chronological periods, they are brought together through consciously discussed thematic approaches, which overlap and indeed, compliment each other. For example, two great events of the first half of the fourteenth century; the Great Famine 1315-22 and the Black Death 1348-9, immediately identify issues of mortality and subsequently, the extent of this impact upon medieval people and their communities.

Chronologically, these books are also interlinked. From William Jordan’s study concerning the Great Famine of 1315-22, to Bruce Campbell’s edited book which acts as a watershed between the expansive demographic and economic trends of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the contraction and stagnation which depicted the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Following this is the short study by John Hatcher, which is interested in the effects of the Black Death, primarily upon population and the economy. The time frame fits in with Rodney Hilton’s study, concerning lords and peasants, covering the period from roughly the late twelfth century to the early sixteenth.

Hilton’s focus is stated almost immediately, “my view has been that conflict between landlords and peasants….was a prime mover in the evolution of medieval society”1.

The structure and perspective upon which these authors undertake their studies are of paramount importance. These four books are notable examples of genre. Two, those of Campbell and Hilton, are collections of studies and essays respectively. Their subtitles make the difference in approach and focus between them clear. Before the Black Death consists of, “studies in the ‘crisis’ of the early fourteenth century”, while Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism concerns itself with, “essays in medieval social history”.

The issue of ‘choice’ relates to both these books for a number of reasons. The synopsis of Campbell’s book asserted that five of the essays (excluding Barbara Harvey’s introduction), which discuss demographic developments, the agrarian economy, industrial transformations, taxation and climatic effects respectively, were originally presented as a residential seminar on medieval economy and society in 1989. As editor of the book, it was Campbell’s role to decide primarily upon the inclusion of these seminar presentations within the book and secondly, the order upon which they should be presented. This edited volume unites these individual studies into one thematic book. However, the lack of a conclusion by Campbell himself, for example, if there actually was a ‘crisis’ in the fourteenth century, fails to summarise the issue in question sufficiently. Hilton’s collection of his own essays spanning a 41-year period, originate from various journals including Past and Present and the New Left Review. As with Campbell, ‘choice’ was vital in relation to the essays presented by Hilton as to how they would blend together in order to convey his argument to most effect. A note of caution: if the reader is not fluent in Latin, the thirteenth century poem in chapter seven of Hilton’s book may prove to be somewhat futile2.

In The Great Famine, Jordan gives a substantive and articulate argument concerning the emergence of the Great Famine in 1315 in relation to its impact upon prices, wages and varying social groups, most notably, lords and rustics. His use of a vast range of primary resources, combined with existing relevant secondary historiography, namely those of Lamprecht and Curzschmann, place together a wider picture of medieval life in and around the Great Famine. With a topic as vast as the Great Famine, it would have been easy for Jordan to fall into the trap of merely describing the event in the context of its causes and effects. Instead, he has delved deeply into the daily lives of medieval people, an approach consistent with Hilton’s, and his detailed inquiry ranges across northern Europe. A common problem in dealing with such a vast amount of sources is that it is difficult for the author to leave information out, however fragmented and patchy. Unfortunately, this has occurred at times in Jordan’s study, for example, his brief and ultimately, unnecessary mention of the origins of serfdom3. Additionally, he neglects to expand on the social effects of the famine, for example, lawlessness and medieval assumptions that the famine was God’s punishment for sin are touched upon, but not developed.

Jordan’s prologue through narrative sets the scene for his cultural approach. A different style altogether to Campbell’s preface, yet equally effective. This preface sets the scene efficiently and is very encouraging. But the rest of book does not live up to this potential. However, the topic covering the period the Black Death is very broad, therefore, the structure he adopted of a collection of individual studies was probably the most relevant for the reader. Despite their approaches and structures being poles apart, Before the Black Death and The Great Famine compliment each other very well in this sense.

Hatcher’s study forms part of a series commissioned by the Economic History Society to provide a, guide to the recent interpretations of the crucial themes in economic and social history. The aim of the series, and thus Hatcher’s book, was to help readers draw their own conclusions and, “to provide a springboard to further work rather than a set of pre-packaged conclusions or short-cuts”4. This appears to have been achieved rather successfully, especially through Hatcher’s commendable portrayal of general historiography, which runs constant to the structure of the book as an overview.

Robert Brenner’s article, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe”, published in Past and Present in 1976 began a debate as to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In clearer terms, what caused movement in history? For Brenner himself, it was class struggle, a view shared strongly by Hilton in Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism. Directly challenging this notion was Malthusianism, which saw population as the prime mover of society. Another key figure worth mentioning is Michael Postan, whose ally can be found in Hatcher. Although, not directly associated to Malthusian ideology, he too advocated population as the key to social transformation5. Brenner’s work inspired much response and debate6, which is encapsulated throughout the books in question.

The effects of the Black Death on population is a key theme which is incorporated and discussed to varying lengths in some of the books. Conservative estimates at population decrease as a result are around one third of the total population. Hatcher focuses on the effects of disease, which he states have been a source of controversy amongst historians. His main focus is the scale and duration of the decline in population and he discusses varying views concerning this issue in detail. For example, on the issue of the movement of population figures post-Black Death, Hatcher theorises views which advocate, either population increase, decrease or stagnation and furthermore, if there was a decrease, to what extent. The works of Postan and Saltmarsh, Kosminsky, Bridbury and Bean are of key relevance here, which contribute towards framing the debate over population post-13487.

Different estimates of population depended upon the types of sources used. For example, Russell in Plague, population and the English economy used Poll Tax Returns for 13778. Hatcher viewed his results as being based upon, “extremely shaky foundations”9. It is stated by Hatcher that there are four ways of calculating the death rate from the Black Death. He is very realistic and practical when assessing the reliability of these methods, yet, he is correct to mention them in his study as they were the only semi-reliable sources still in existence. Overall, and justifiably so, Hatcher appears dubious over medieval sources, none more so than replacement rates which he finds ‘speculative’. Hilton states on numerous occasions throughout Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism that various records are incomplete or unreliable. We must not dwell too much on this fact as sources are bound to be scarce from this time period- it is a fact of historical investigation. However, it is the ability with which historians are able to find other paths of approach, which ultimately determine their success as researchers and analysts of the past.

Mortality was the key issue in Hatcher’s study as he felt it mostly determined the effect on the nation’s population. This is not to say that he is completely dogmatic in approach or argument. Hatcher shows good awareness of the fact that, “knowledge of mortality needs to be supplemented by knowledge of fertility”10.

Hatcher’s analysis of historiography on the subject of population decline is laudable. It covers most importantly, the main views and debates, which have dominated this period of history for many years. For example, views of Malthus and Postan are discussed. Equally, Richard Smith’s study on demography in Before the Black Death, with the inclusion of a very useful graph concerning Malthusian population theory, comprises a sound explanation of the key factors of Malthusianism and its theory of population movements and living standards11. The work of both Hatcher and Smith on this topic indicates a realisation of the importance of Malthusianism for any debate concerning demography and population. Additionally, both studies would be very useful to a reader who is new to the topic.

Malthusian ideas are correctly, though not wholly accepted not discarded by Hatcher. True to his aim, Hatcher is encouraging the reader to think. The key problem identified is that the expected rise in population following the Black Death did not occur immediately. Only in the late fifteenth century did it become evident of a clear population rise. None of the four books enter this in great detail. Possibilities may have included other outbreaks of plague or a conscious decision by medieval peasants to marry and have children later in their lives. This employment of choice over the outcome of their lives opposed Malthusian ideology, which argued that women had an innate desire to have children. An additional criticism of Malthusianism lies in The Great Famine, where Jordan criticises the Malthusian model of famine for being too simplistic as it stated that famine was a function of population growth outpacing increases in food production12.

For Mate, it was the 1330’s rather than 1315-22 that was the period of most significance, prior to the Black Death13. She recognises factors such as war, taxation and floods, which further burdened the lives of the peasants.

In The Great Famine, Jordan also recognises the role played by war in 1315-22. For example, in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, dynastic struggles kept the North country in constant turmoil until 1319. Rather than a cause of the famine, he maintains that, “it intensified the deprivation by expanding a production crisis into a distribution crisis as well” 14. Whilst Jordan does acknowledge the effects of war on prices, wages and subsequently, the cost of living, he fails to do with any conviction. For Mate, war is brought to the forefront of her argument, especially the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, which caused new problems on the economy. This example of war exemplifies two very contrasting views as to the importance of it as a key factor for this discussion. Both Jordan’s and Mate’s arguments on this issue are worthy of attention and analysis.

A depiction of the Great Famine as a weather-induced phenomenon is one that overshadows Jordan’s investigation. Mark Bailey’s study in Before the Black Death substantiates Jordan’s argument for the importance of the weather around the time of the Great Famine. Bailey correctly highlights that the effects of weather were very much a localised problem and this is constructively conveyed in the Table 6.1- Incidence of recorded sea-floods in eastern England 1275-1348, (p190)15. Both Jordan and Bailey find a link between the weather and rising grain prices, yet, for this issue, Jordan’s study should be primarily consulted as his chapter concerning prices and wages identifies a number of factors, including the weather, which led to a vast rise in prices.

Jordan’s study on the Great Famine can be included within the theme of demography. Despite the worst periods of this famine, which began in 1315, not resulting in levels of mortality on the scale of the Black Death in 1348, the effects of the two epidemics can be inextricably linked. As Jordan found, assessing the total impact of the Great Famine is fraught with difficulties. For instance, in Launceston priory in Devon, the population was so small and infirm to begin with that conclusions could not be accurately relied upon16. However, the reliability of sources varied from region to region. For example, in the heavily populated areas of central and south-east England, heriot payments, the equivalent of death duties on customary holdings, suggest a relatively large increase in mortality, according to Jordan, of up to 10% of the total population. Conversely, Bruce Campbell who studied evidence from East Anglia, can find no decline of population on that scale and he insists that, “great was the distress which it caused”, the famine was no “watershed” there17. In agreement is J. C. Russell who argued that demographically, the famine and concurrent epidemic disease were not sufficient to have made any significant impact on the population trend. Falling between these two poles of opinion is Bailey, who concluded that the mortality of the effects of the Great Famine in an area of East Anglia were real but, “serious rather than critical”18. Jordan’s suggestion that in comparison to the Great Famine, “not even the Black Death seemed as bad”19, must be deemed incorrect in light of the other studies under review. For example, Hatcher concludes that the mortality rate from the Black Death was somewhere between 30-45%20.

Furthermore, Jordan recognised that unlike the Black Death which affected both rich and poor alike, the Great Famine affected mostly the poor, “there was clear differential mortality according to rank with no increase in the death rate of aristocrats in the countryside”21. Again, I must return to my previous argument concerning Jordan’s attempt to include too much information- leading to unnecessary inconsistencies, as this statement implies that the Black Death had more far-reaching consequences than the Great Famine.

Jordan concluded that after the Great Famine’s initial crippling effects, the northern European economy did recover quickly, but it experienced a period of social instability. To support argument he used studies such as that of Bruce Campbell, who argued that the population of parishes in Norfolk adjusted to threats of crisis and continued to grow, albeit much more slowly, to the eve of the Black Death. This issue of the length of effect of the Great Famine is considered further by Kershaw who assesses its impact of the famine upon specific estates. For example, the Ramsay Abbey Estates proved unable to provide sufficient capital investment to replace livestock wiped out in the cattle murrain of 1319-20. Consequently, it took them twenty years to recover. On the contrary, Merton College was able to replace its livestock losses within two years at Cheddington and Cuxhum22. This style of assessment by Kershaw, appears to have a more successful overall effect than Jordan’s suggestion that the economy as a whole recovered swiftly.

Unlike with Hatcher who stimulates the reader to reflect on and consider key issues and debates, Jordan does not give his audience the opportunity to regarding the effects of the Great Famine. Whilst Jordan concludes that the famine predominantly had short-term effects upon the economy, he offers no inferences of possible longer-term consequences to encourage readers to form their own opinions. He does attribute one major long-term effect of the famine to “nutritional biology” 23. Jordan stated that the poor people in their thirties and forties during the Black Death would have been children during the Great Famine. Thus, they would have been more susceptible to disease in contrast to their elders, who would have been adults during the famine and those who were not alive during the famine. As readers, we must be sceptical of this as a number of years existed between the great famine and the Black Death. In addition to this, if an individual contracted the pneumonic plague, it had no relation to diet. Thus we cannot rely on Jordan’s reasoning behind nutritional biology as a long-term factor.

Mavis Mate’s study in Before the Black Death directly refutes Jordan’s attributed importance to the Great Famine as the most significant event of the fourteenth century. However she does recognise, as did Jordan that prices rose considerably and also, that after the Great Famine, the economy was, “profoundly shaken but not destroyed”24.

Conversely, Richard Smith in the same book is much less certain, as he was unable to conclude whether or not England’s population had sustained a continuing decline between the Great Famine and the Black Death.

Barbara Harvey places the event of the famine firmly into her discussion and appears much more assertive than her colleague Richard Smith as she states that the famine was the turning point between the early medieval rise in population and the late medieval decline. She consequently argues that the equilibrium, which had once existed between population and the economy was shattered well before the Black Death25. In the preface, Campbell stated that one aim of Before the Black Death was to, “help to focus and motivate further historical investigation”26. This example of differing views concerning population pre-1348, appears consistent with this aim. Despite this book appearing to aim at a more advanced readership than, for example, Hatcher and Jordan, it still seems to be initiating its intention of encouraging future historical research.

Harvey’s argument is vital as she exemplifies the field of thought, which strongly rejects the possibility that the Black Death caused many changes within society. Rather, she advocates the existence of a long-term break in the trend between population and economy well before 1348. This perspective seems much more feasible as there is a wealth of evidence throughout these studies which highlight existing circumstances and problems well before the Black Death. None more so than Rodney Hilton’s depiction of the strenuous relationship between landlords and peasants in medieval society.

Rodney Hilton uses the population effects of the Black Death to relate to the knock-on effects concerning the lord-peasant relationships. A specialist in medieval social history and more specifically, a historian of the peasantry, Hilton sought to establish their centrality in history, which is clearly portrayed in Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism. An achievement reached in this book was to reveal new dimensions to the lives of medieval peasants and townspeople and to outline the dynamic forces behind economic and social change. His ideology was based predominantly upon people, as individuals and not merely an oppressed social group. Hilton gave peasants a face and brought them to the foreground of his argument. A typical Marxist, as was Brenner, he saw that politics must be seen from below. A reader of this book must also be aware of Britnell’s article, “Feudal reaction after the Black Death in the Palatinate of Durham”. His term of ‘feudal reaction’, explains the actions adopted by lords to protect themselves in the wake of the peasant’s newly acquired economic power following the Black Death. This links effectively with Hilton’s argument as he sees the peasant ethos of freedom as a deeply embedded notion, which the Black Death made a practicality. Thus, the ‘feudal reaction’ was bound to fail, as Britnell put it, in the wake of, “tenant resistance and economic realism”27.

The familiar picture at the beginning of the fourteenth century was that of an oppressed peasant population, tied to the land with little or no rights who were exploited by their tyrannical landlords. Whilst these truisms were reflective of medieval society, they were to prove to be anything but permanent. After the Black Death, as Hilton argues, peasants gained bargaining power which increased the financial difficulties of the lords which directly relates to the crisis of feudalism, as relationships were breaking down. Landlords experience differed greatly, as already mentioned by Jordan, between the Great Famine and Black Death.

The gradual social and economic upheaval that followed the Black Death, continued to alter the relationship between peasant and lord for many years and finally finished with the toppling of the feudal system. Hilton’s final and possibly, most effective chapter is as such as it lays down concrete foundations for this major transition later in the period; that from feudalism to capitalism. A longer chapter than the others in the book, it provides useful analysis of secondary historiography and debate and ultimately leaves the whole book open to individual interpretations28.

Jordan does not commit himself to passing judgement on the issue of the basis of the 1381 Peasants Revolt. Whilst acknowledging that violence still existed, he infers that it was not always against their landlords. Instead, violence was more likely to occur due to struggles for food, especially bread. Conversely, Hilton claims that peasant violence in this period can be directly associated with the origins of the revolt, which was a culmination of years of peasant oppression. Where previously, as Jordan had argued, many lords and merchants benefited from economic and social crises such as the Great Famine, the Black Death was to create the opposite. According to Hilton, vacant land and lack of labourers led to in the short- term at least, a rise in wages and a continual decrease in rent29. This significant social change is all possible, from Hilton’s standpoint, without the influence of population levels30. His coherent argument only becomes clear a good way into the book with small case studies occupying the initial chapters.

Hatcher acknowledges peasants post-Black Death as active deciders of their own destinies31. Yet, true to his Postan-like stance, it is a lesser factor in the shadow of the effects of population.

This review article has touched upon a number of debates and themes, which both connect and differentiate between the books under review. In addition to assessments of the consistency of argument, the use of evidence and the incorporation of existing historiography, it is important whether or not readers actually enjoyed the material presented to them. Chapters in Before the Black Death such as Richard Munro’s “Industrial Transformations in the north-west European textile trades” and Richard Smith’s, “Demographic developments in rural England 1300-48” are uninspiring.

The most difficult to read is Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism. Many of its chapters were very short and Hilton did not appear to be making his point entirely clear. It is possible that a fuller argument has been written in alternative material. Alternatively, as with Hatcher, Hilton may have been encouraging the reader to read outside of his study to enrich their knowledge. However, this fact does unfortunately detract from the book itself, despite Hilton’s overall style being most effective in structuring his argument concerning lord and peasant relationships. Hatcher’s succinctness and mixture of informative and analytical text certainly sets the reader on the path to understanding population trends in the fact of medieval plague and disease. Likewise, Jordan, despite perhaps attempting to cover too much ground in one study, is clear and analytical in approach. His insistence upon asking reams of questions becomes laborious, yet perhaps necessary which may invoke further research on such a crucial time period.

In order to assess what role the Black Death did play in the transitional events which followed it, all these four books are useful starting points to initiating debate and developing arguments with which the readers themselves must make sense of.

Basic features
  • Free title page and bibliography
  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
  • Money-back guarantee
  • 24/7 support
On-demand options
  • Writer’s samples
  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our guarantees

Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

Read more

Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

Read more

Privacy policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

Read more