The Black Death

Population growth and decline

In 1300 there may have been as many as six million people in England. However, the population growth of the thirteenth century was followed early in the fourteenth century by:

  • A series of bad harvests
  • Recurrent periods of poor weather
  • Outbreaks of disease among cattle as well as humans. 

The famines which resulted led to a decline in population, and this was exacerbated in 1348-9 by the Europe-wide plague known as the Black Death.

What was the Black Death?

Black Death is a modern term. Fourteenth century people talked about the ‘pestilence' or even ‘the Death' for this European pandemic of the years 1348-9. Historians in the past believed that it was bubonic plague, which was spread by rats. However, this epidemic is now believed by many scientists to have involved perhaps more than one disease, the most virulent of which was probably a virus. The black rat was, in fact, very rare in medieval England. 

See http://www.liv.ac.uk/researchintelligence/issue24/blackdeath.html, for research at Liverpool University examining some of the possible causes. 

Whatever the causes, this highly infectious disease swept westwards through Europe and killed many. It spread through Britain from the south coast and is estimated to have killed at least a third of England's population.

The Dance of Death, inspired by the Black DeathThe social effects of the Black Death

For the remainder of the fourteenth century, the population was lower (perhaps at around three million even at the end of the century). This meant that for many people:

  • Wages became higher – employers desperate for workers had to pay more to attract them
  • The costs of many foodstuffs fell – with fewer people to buy goods, those wishing to sell had to cut prices.

The results of the Black Death and this demographic change were bad for upper-class estate-owners:

  • Their lands were yielding less than they had in their fathers' and grandfathers' times
  • Costs, including wages, were rising.

For people lower down the socio-economic scale, however, the post-plague world held some opportunities:

  • There was an increase in mobility, as workers moved from their villages and towns to take up paid work
  • There was a decrease in the use of ‘unfree' serf or bonded labour in favour of wage-earners.

There were several further outbreaks of plague in later fourteenth-century England. These often affected the young especially, making population recovery slow for over a century.

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