Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 A.D

By Colin Platt | Go to book overview
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In the tangled argument that centres now on the condition of England at the turn of the thirteenth and the fourteenth century, there is one point, at least, on which there is general agreement. In relation to its natural resources and to the quality of its technology, England at that time was seriously overpopulated. It was ripe for the original Malthusian checks of war, famine and pestilence, and ill-equipped too (as societies tend to be) for the moral restraint that Malthus later agreed might hold back population without them. In effect, the population growth which had developed the wealth of England over the two centuries following the Conquest, had continued to a point at which it now began to threaten that wealth with the dangers of overcrowding. For a generation or so, an individual landowner might profit from abundant labour and an intensifying demand for land which continually pushed up his rents. And there is evidence, for example, late in the thirteenth century, of sophisticated accountancy at Norwich Priory, assessing the real profitability of demesne farming, as then practised, against the probable yield of the identical lands in rents. 1 Nor, indeed, would the down-turn in demesne farming, certainly beginning before the end of the century on estates both ecclesiastical and lay, result necessarily in any net loss at that time. Nevertheless, where there is no appreciable rise in productivity and where population continues to grow, the advance, or even the stability, of the holders of capital can be achieved, if at all, only at the expense of the work-force. There are many pointers in early-fourteenth-century England to what this must have meant before the plague.

Most obvious of these was the peasant land-hunger which pushed out arable farming into ever less suitable soils, while simultaneously breaking down the existing land units into fragments which were steadily less viable on their own. 2 In the old 'fielden' communities, subject to manorial control, population growth had frequently been relatively moderate, and existing interests had been given valuable protection by long-established usage and by the accustomed co-operation of peasant families brought up to cultivation in common. Yet where

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