The reality of death

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

What was the Black Death? 

The black deathMost history books will tell you that what was known as the Black Death 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. 

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 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, by workers moving 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 fourteenth-century England.

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 in modern England. Life expectancy in Chaucer's time may have averaged around 30-35 years, but that meant a large number of babies and toddlers died. Once people had survived infancy their chances of living into, say, their 50s could be good. A women's life expectancy increased greatly when and if they had survived their years of childbearing. Strong and fortunate people might survive into their 60s and 70s. 

However, sudden and unexpected deaths were relatively common hazards. 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.


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