- The world of Chaucer 1330-1400
- Medieval writers
- Key events
- Making sense of the tangible world
- Making sense of the intangible world
Death in society and culture
Population growth and decline
In 1300 there may have been as many as six million people in England. Instead of an economy primarily based on agricultural production from estates, trade was becoming more important. Producers of both food and other commodities were becoming more likely to diversify or specialize, producing for the market and not just for personal and local consumption. English wool and cloth were major exports.
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. See World of Chaucer > Key events > The Black Death
The 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.
Life expectancy in medieval England
Apart from the plague as a cause of mass death, the chances of living to old age were much lower than they are today. Life expectancy in Chaucer's time may have averaged around 30-35 years, but that meant a large number of babies and toddlers died. It does not mean everyone died in their 30s! Once people had survived infancy, their chances of living into, say, their 50s or 60s could be quite good. A women's life expectancy increased greatly when and if they had survived their dangerous years of childbearing. Strong and fortunate people might survive into their 60s, 70s, even beyond.
However, sudden and unexpected deaths were common. Many men and women died young owing to the lack of:
- Effective medicines
- Proper sanitation
- Safe and successful surgery
- Adequate scientific understanding of disease and the body.
These normal dangers surrounding medieval people made acceptance of one's own mortality a sensible outlook. It was believed that sudden death, before a person had confessed his or her sins and obtained absolution from a priest, could jeopardise a believer's place in heaven in the after-life.
Youth, middle age and old age
According to medieval perceptions:
- Youth was often said to last from 10 to 20, more often 30. There was a general image of youth as a time of cheerfulness, love and foolishness
- Middle age lasted from then to 50 or 60
- Old age was the period thereafter. Old age was marked by greater seriousness and less energetic activities. It was also the period in life when it was natural to concentrate as much as possible on the soul and spiritual devotions.
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