Britain 1400

By Saul, Nigel | History Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview
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Britain 1400


Saul, Nigel, History Today


Nigel Saul tells how, in, spite of famines and visitations of the plague, conditions were better than ever before for those living in 1400.

AT THE END of the fourteenth century the British Isles were a land transformed. At the beginning of the century the population everywhere had been high and rising. Towns and villages had been crowded. The countryside had been akin to Langland's `plain full of people'. A hundred years later the position was very different. Population had fallen and continued to fall. Whole villages had vanished from the map. In the towns, rows of tenements stood empty.

The turning point had come in 1348 when the Black Death struck Britain. No plague epidemic had hit the country for some 700 years; the last known outbreak had been back in the 660s. In the 1340s, however, a plague-carrying bacillus was brought to western Europe from Russia. The dreaded infection spread quickly. According to the chronicler of Lynn, it was introduced to England through Weymouth in June. By August it had reached the south-east, and by spring the following year it had spread to the far north. The symptoms of the disease were terrible. Large swellings or buboes grew in the groin, neck or armpit, giving off a foul smell, and within two or three days the victim was dead. In the absence of reliable statistics it is hard to say how many people died, but a figure of between 30 and 40 per cent of the population is probably about right. At the beginning of the century, England's population had been some 6-7 million. Eighty years later it had fallen to 3-4 million. Scotland's population is believed to have fallen by the same proportion.

The Black Death, though the most dramatic, was not the only catastrophe to hit the British Isles in the fourteenth century. In the forty years before this plague there had been a series of natural disasters. For two successive summers, in 1315 and 1316, there had been heavy rain, destroying the harvest and leaving the people without food; so famine was widespread. In 1321 there was another harvest failure, and prices rose to almost the levels of 1316. The natural disasters were not confined to humans. Sheep were afflicted by liver rot and other diseases, and flocks were decimated. At the royal manor of Clipstone (Nottinghamshire) half the flock died. The fall in animal stocks had major consequences. Not only were milk and cheese supplies reduced; cereal production was disrupted because draught animals were lost.

The Cambridge economic historian M.M. Postan, writing in the 1960s and 1970s, suggested that there was a `crisis of subsistence' in the early fourteenth century -- in other words, that population growth was outstripping resources, and that a malnourished population had become `calamity sensitive'. The suggestion, however, may well underestimate the level of development of the medieval economy. The majority of peasant landholders had small surpluses to exchange for food, while the landless or very poor could support themselves by working for the better-off. It is noticeable that in some of the most densely populated areas, like East Anglia, there are remarkably few signs of impoverishment.

However serious the famines, then, the Black Death probably deserves its reputation as the main agent of change. Moreover, it was not the only visitation of plague. There were further major outbreaks in 1361, 1369, 1390, 1413, 1434, 1439 and 1464, and smaller outbreaks in between; in Scotland there were additional outbreaks in 1401-3, 1430-2 and 1455. In their accounts of the visitations of 1361 and 1390 the chroniclers noted that the disease particularly afflicted the young -- presumably because they lacked the resistance to it of their elders. As a result of this high incidence among adolescents, there were fewer people of child-bearing age, and by 1400 the population was failing to reproduce itself. It is not until the end of the fifteenth century that there is firm evidence of a recovery in numbers.

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