Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death

I first posted this piece in June on The History Girls blogspot, but you know how much I love talking about the Black Death, so I thought I should share it again here.


I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:

“After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.”

But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram geograph.org.uk/p/4425731

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

Winchester castle
The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), fol. 78v (Public domain)

The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library. 
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram geograph.org.uk/p/2046565

But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:

“The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds”

Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.

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