We are unlikely now to view the Black Death in the same way as did its contemporaries. This 'wretched, fierce, violent' pestilence, in the words of the Ashwell Church inscription, after which only the 'dregs of the populace live to tell the tale', 1 can be coolly revalued by the historian of today as 'more purgative than toxic'. 2 And, indeed, with surplus population to be disposed of whether in this way or another, the famines of the early fourteenth century, the Black Death of 1348-9, and the succeeding pestilences of 1361 and 1368-9, all had their part to play in remedying the social ills which, from the reign of Edward I and earlier, had increasingly beset the kingdom. Yet, as we now know, the Black Death and its immediate successors carried off, within the space of a generation, between a third and a half of what had been the mid-century population. 3 Both in the short term and in the long, the consequences of these epidemics were momentous.
Naturally, the incidence of each epidemic varied, and there were some communities in every case that escaped virtually unscathed. Nevertheless, the experience of the villagers of Cuxham, in Oxfordshire, struck by the Death in the early months of 1349, cannot have been untypical, being one example among many of the devastations of a plague which, however we care to view it, placed its mark on the community for centuries. At Cuxham, in 1349, all twelve of the lord's villeins died within the year. And although, inside six years, new tenants were again found for every vacant holding on the manor, it is clear that they had not been come by easily: they were turbulent now and undisciplined, reluctant to perform labour services and, wherever an opportunity offered, insistent on their right to a high wage. 4 It was explicitly 'because of the death of men' that the issues of the mill at Ibstone, another of Merton's manors, were said to be so small in 1349, 5 while the decline of the college's receipts at Ibstone, already visible before the Black Death, was matched on the estates of many contemporary landowners, to whom the disaster of 1348-9 brought a permanent diminution of income. Between 1347 and 1351, and directly attributable to the Black Death, the monks of Battle lost fully 20 per cent of their pre-plague revenues, which fell again by