Landholding in England/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV.—THE BLACK DEATH


"Tenure in Villenage is most properly, when a villeine holdeth of his lord … certaine lands or tenements, according to the custom of the manor … as to carry and recarry the dung of his lord out of the manor unto the land of his lord, and to spread the same upon the land, and such like. … And some freemen hold their tenements according to the cnstome of certaine manors, by such services … and yet they are not villeins; for no land holden in villenage, or villein land, shall ever make a freeman villeine. But a villeine may make free land to be villeine land to his lord.

"Villenage is the service of a bondman. And yet a freeman may doe the service of him that is bond. And therefore a tenure in villenage is twofold; one, where the person of the tenant is bond, and the tenure servile; the other, where the person is free, and the tenure servile. … The villeine may purchase some kind of inheritance in fee simple, which the lord of the villeine cannot have.—Littleton.


A GREAT change for the worse in the position of small tenants began in the reign of Edward III.; it was partly the result of the French wars, but still more of a terrible physical calamity.

The conquest of France was the motive of a far-reaching development of the theory of tenure. Up to now, Norman and Saxon had held land by tenures which, differing but slightly in appearance, in practice differed enormously. The smaller landholders, the "freemen," represented the conquered Saxons. But though he had conquered them, the Conqueror thought it prudent to leave them in possession of their lands on the old terms of forty days' military service—always represented as for the defence of the country. These "udall" tenants were not vassals. They held as they had held in Edward the Confessor's time, and they took no oath of allegiance except to the King. The great Norman landholders, who came over with the Conqueror, and divided the spoils of the Saxon earls, took the same oath of allegiance; but their tenants were vassals, and took another oath of allegiance to their lord. Edward III. made the claim which has often been ascribed to the Conqueror. In the twenty-fourth year of his reign (1349-1350), he enacted, "That the King is the universal lord and original proprietor of all land in his kingdom"; and that no man doth, or can possess any part of it but mediately or immediately as a gift from him, to be held on feudal service. This one sentence sums up the three great Statutes of Edward I.—the tendency of them all was to tighten the hold of the great lords, and also that of the King, on the lands.

We all know the stories of Crecy, Poictiers, Agincourt, and Joan of Arc; but we do not all realise that our wars for the conquest of France lasted—with truces—for a hundred years, and it is with some shock of surprise that even the well-informed of us see for the first time these wars spoken of by French historians, as "La Guerre de Cent Ans," The first effect of them was to pour immense wealth into England. Besides the actual spoils of war — the loot of towns and castles—there were the enormous ransoms paid by the prisoners taken at Crecy and Poictiers, The ransom of the King of France was fixed at 3,000,000 gold crowns; and the King had to wait a prisoner three years before impoverished France could raise the first instalment of this monstrous sum. This sum equalled £5,000,000 of our money; but it must be considered equivalent to very much more, since as late as the reign of Henry VIII. money was about twenty times its present value. Four dukes paid 200,000 florins—the gold florin of Edward III. was worth 6s. And besides all this, there were concessions of castles and estates, to be granted by the victorious King of England to his favourites. But as usually happens with the prosperity accompanying war, that prosperity was inflated, and the great drain of men in the wars was not made up by the ransom money.[1]

Then came the unfortunate expedition of the Black Prince to restore Pedro the Cruel to the throne of Castile. In a great battle, the King of the people's choice was defeated, but he soon dethroned Pedro a second time. The Black Prince could not get the money Pedro had promised him to pay his army with, and was obliged to tax Guienne. Guienne revolted, the truce was broken, and war renewed. The English army in Spain was eaten up with disease, and the Prince himself was never the same in body or mind. He died four years later, six years before his father. The long and glorious reign of Edward III. closed in gloom and angry discontent, and the long and disastrous minority of Richard II. was the price that England paid for restoring a tyrant.

The beginning of the Hundred Years' War was marked by a calamity so vast, so universal, that it is impossible to understand the social changes of these times without taking it into account. It was the most frightful pestilence known in history. The terrified peoples of Europe called it the Black Death. It devasted every country from China to Iceland and Greenland. Especially did it fall heavily upon England.

Very little is known about it, except its ravages. It appeared first in China, in the year 1333. It is said to have begun after a parching drought, "in the country watered by the rivers Kiang and Hoai." Next year, it broke out again in the province of Tche—also after a drought. It was everywhere accompanied by great convulsions of nature—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, floods. It spread across Asia, depopulating India, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia. It raged in Egypt. By 1347 it touched Europe, breaking out first in Cyprus—then in Greece, Turkey, and Vienna—where, for some time, 1200 died daily. In Europe, besides earthquakes and other convulsions, there was a pestiferous wind, and in Italy, "a thick, stinking mist" spread before it. Italy lost half her population. It is the plague known to readers of Boccaccio. It spread to Germany. In January of 1348 it was at Avignon. France suffered even more than Germany. It even stopped the war. Just after Calais surrendered, a truce was made—it was impossible to go on fighting in face of the plague. It spread to the north of Europe. Two-thirds of the people of Norway died—the plague was brought to Bergen by a ship from England. Lastly, in 1351, it came to Russia and laid it waste. On the North Sea, in the Mediterranean, ships drove at the will of wind and tide, and drifted ashore, bringing the Black Death with them—their crews all dead.

In England it first appeared at a Dorset seaport on the 1st of August 1348. It spread through Devon and Somerset to Bristol—thence to Gloucester, Oxford, London, and so northward. Seven thousand died in Great Yarmouth. Scotland at first escaped, but the Scots, thinking to take advantage of their plague-stricken enemy, crossed the border. They were repelled, and the plague fell upon them, destroyed the invading army, and spread through Scotland. Ireland was but lightly visited.

For one whole year it raged in England. We are told that as a rule the sick died in three days. It was observed that the young and strong perished, the old and feeble escaped. The living were hardly able to bury the dead. In Norwich 57,304 persons died, "besides religious and beggars." The ecclesiastical records which have come down to us show that somewhat over half of the clergy fell victims. The Diocesan Institution Book of Norwich records 863 institutions to Church livings that year. At the request of the Bishop, Pope Clement VI. issued a bull, allowing the instituting to rectories of clerks only twenty-one years of age—the reason given being fear lest divine service should cease, as there were 1000 parishes in the diocese without priests. Three Archbishops of Canterbury died in that one year. The Abbot of Westminster and twenty-six of his monks were buried together in a common grave in the south cloister of the Abbey. High and low perished—a daughter of the King died of the plague. In London, from Candlemas to Easter, 200 were buried daily. As the burying-grounds could not suffice, the Bishop of London bought the plot called "No-man's-land," and gave it for a "pest-pit," and Sir Walter Manny gave the Spittle Croft—where afterwards he founded the Charterhouse. 50,000 corpses were buried in layers in one of these "pest-pits" alone. The sitting of Parliament was suspended. The King's Bench was closed. The 13,000 students of Oxford were dispersed.

In country places, many whole villages were depopulated. A dreadful murrain broke out in cattle and sheep. The cattle wandered about without herdsmen, and died by thousands, and it was said that the birds of prey would not touch their bodies. The great harvest of that year rotted on the ground. About half the population of England died.

As long after as the seventeenth year of Henry VII., a petition to the King says that "by reason of the great visitation of Almighty God, there was so great dearth of people," that "most of the dwelling places and inhabitations" of Great Yarmouth "stood desolate and fell into utter ruin and decay, which at this day are gardens and void grounds"; and so the value of the benefice had fallen from 700 marks to £40 a year. Land fell in value, because labour was dear, there being so few labourers. The assessments of towns had to be lowered. Three years after the Black Death Oxford's assessment was reduced to one-third less than it had been in the Domesday Survey!

And, as always happens when life becomes peculiarly insecure, the restraints of morality were cast off, and men grew worse instead of better, because they were so likely to be dead to-morrow.

A learned German Professor, Dr Heckel, of Berlin, who wrote upon the Black Death from its medical side, says of the effect in England: "Smaller losses were sufficient to cause those convulsions, whose consequences were felt for some centuries, in a false impulse given to civil life, and whose indirect influence, unknown to the English, has, perhaps, extended even to modern times."

Especially did the Black Death effect an entire change in the system of farming. Both secular landlords and monasteries took more and more to letting on lease, instead of under the old system of farming by stewards. Labour was commuted for money. The losses in sheep upset taxation—for wool had been the King's chief resource when he wanted money. On the other hand, now that tillage was become so much more expensive, and even in some parts impossible, owing to the shortage of labour, land was put down in pasture. There was more profit in ten acres of grazing than in twenty of tillage. Moreover, there was some restriction on the export of corn, but none on the export of wool; and so it often happened that "hundreds of acres were watched by one shepherd and his dog." Villages fell into decay, houses were pulled down, tenants were ejected, and the first beginning was made of the great army of "landless men," vagabonds. It does not improve a man's morals not to have where to lay his head, and many of these vagabonds took to thieving. They were freely hanged; but even in the Middle Ages hanging did not diminish crime, and we hear of them more and more as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the moment the villeins found how greatly their numbers were reduced—and their value enhanced—they banded together for better wages. In that very plague year of 1349 the first Statute of Labourers was passed, fixing the rate of wages at the rate which obtained in the twentieth year of the King (1347). But it is useless to fight with the law of supply, and even imprisoning the serfs could not make them work for the same wage as before. The great body of the labourers, "bond and free," joined together in "coactions," after the manner of a modern trades-union. They even subscribed money for these unions, which were described as "the malice of servants in husbandry." Statute after statute was made against "coactions," but in vain; and though Wat Tyler fell, and the Charters of Manumission granted during the panic were revoked as soon as the fright was over, serfdom was dead. The landlords, while predicting that they "all would perish in one day," dropped their claims to be masters of the villeins' bodies and souls.

These Statutes of Labourers show the helplessness of magistrates and lords to retain or recover their runaway servants. The 1 Richard II. complains that "counsellors, abettors and maintainers are getting the villeins to work for them, instead of for their lords, and telling them they are free from all manner of service," as well of body as of tenure. The villeins menace life and limb to the officers of their lords, assemble on the highroads, and take counsel together to help each other to resist their lords. The 5 Richard II. says that many villeins of great lords and others, as well spiritual as temporal, flee into cities and free towns, and pretend to institute suits against their lords—thus putting the lord in the dilemma of letting the case go unanswered, or by answering acknowledging the freedom of his villein. So now the lord shall not be barred of his right by answering. By 12 Richard II. no servant may go from one hundred to another without a "testimonial" under the King's seal. If he does, he shall be set in the stocks—to which end there shall be stocks in every town. The "prudhommes" of the hundred shall have a seal to use at their discretion—the name of the county to be written round the seal, and across it the name of the hundred. Any servant or labourer found in a city or town or elsewhere, wandering without a letter patent sealed with such a seal, to be put in the stocks till he finds surety to return to his service, or to serve in the town he comes from, till he gets a letter to depart for reasonable cause. But he may freely depart at the end of his term of service, and serve elsewhere, provided he is sure of work there, and has a letter. Anyone found with a forged letter to have forty days' prison, or till he finds surety for returning and serving. He is not to take more wages than is limited—servants have long asked "outrageous" wages, much greater than in past times. Servants are so dear that husbandmen cannot pay their rents or hardly live on their lands. Then follow the rates of wages. A bailiff for husbandry, 13s. 4d. a year and his clothes—one suit a year. The "master hind," 10s., the carter and shepherd the same. The oxherd and cowherd, 6s. 8d. A woman labourer, 6s. A ploughman, 7s. at most—"without clothes, courtesie ou autre regard par covenant." Anyone who gives or takes more shall pay the value of the excess, and the second time, double, and the third time treble, or forty days, if he cannot pay. Able-bodied beggars are to be treated as those who leave their hundred without "letters testimonial," except religious persons and hermits having letters from their ordinaries. Impotent beggars are to remain in the towns they are in, and if the people of the towns cannot feed them, then in the hundreds where they were born.

The 13 Richard II. abolished the fines. But every new statute begins by saying that the former laws are not observed.

In Henry VI.'s time the wages of a bailiff had gone up to 23s. 4d., a year, and clothing worth 5s., with meat and drink. A chief hind, carter or head shepherd, 20s., and clothing to value of 4s., with meat and drink. A common servant of husbandry, 15s., and clothes to 40d. A woman, 10s., and clothes to 4s., with meat and drink. A child of fourteen, 6s., and clothes to 3s., with meat and drink. "And those that deserve less to have less." A "free mason or master carpenter," 4d. a day with meat and drink or 5d. without. A master tiler or slater, a "rough" mason, and carpenter, and other workmen for building, 3d. a day with meat and 4d. without. Other labourers 2d. or 3d. Wages were higher from Easter to Michaelmas than from Michaelmas to Easter. We hear no more of fines till the 23 Henry VI., and then they are to be no more than 3s. 4d. (a quarter of a mark).

The best proof of the comparative comfort of English labourers is found in the sumptuary clauses of these statutes, and in the directions as to what "meat and drink" is to mean. The 36 Edward III. c. 8 orders that "garsons" as well servants to lords as servants of "mysteries," and artificers, shall be served once a day with meat and drink — flesh or fish ; and the rest with other victuals, as in summer, cheese, butter, and other such victuals fit for their degree. The cloth of their clothes is not to cost more than 2 marks in all (this includes their cloth shoes); and they may not use dearer cloth of their own buying, nor gold and silver embroidery, nor silk, "nor anything belonging to these things. And let their wives, daughters and children be the same, and use nothing costing more than 'the old twelve pence.' Handicraftsmen are not to wear silk cloth, or cloth of silver, nor ribbons, chains, seals, or other things of gold and silver; and their wives are not to wear silk veils, but only thread; nor fur, but only lambskin or rabbitskin." So the Act climbs up the ladder; and its perfectly futile ordinances only serve to show that everybody, from the labourer to the burgess and the knight, was aping his betters. Wives of knights with only 200 marks a year in lands are not to wear gowns trimmed with miniver, nor ermine sleeves, and their womenkind may not wear "revers" of ermine, or any jewellery, except on their heads. Garsons, yeomen, and servants of merchant-artificers, or tradesmen, are to dress as the garsons and yeomen of the lords paramount. Waggoners, carters, oxherds, shepherds, swineherds, and all others who have not 40 solidi (40d.) of goods and chattels, to wear no cloth but "blanket and russet," at i2d. the ell.

But the villeins had gained their freedom dearly—they lost their grip on the land. They crowded into the towns—as Heckel says, "a false impulse" was given to town life. The first step had been taken towards getting the people off the land. Much of this evil, however, temporarily repaired itself later.

The Statutes of Labourers were an attempt to perpetuate villeinage by forcing the villein to work for the lord at the old rate of wages. After twenty years of abortive legislation on one side and increasing organisation on the other, the peasants rose in the very serious insurrection of 1381—an insurrection attributed to the outrage on Wat Tyler's daughter, but far too widespread and simultaneous not to have been brewing a long while. Wycklif and his "poor priests" had been preaching doctrines equivalent to those afterwards known as "liberty, fraternity, equality." John Ball had asked:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman?"

And the next half-century was to show that the doctrines of the Lollards had spread through every rank of society. Wat Tyler's "Rebellion" extended from Kent to Yorkshire, and from Hampshire to London It was put down with great severity, but the counsellors of Richard II. saw that it would not be safe to persist in asserting the old rights.

The result of the rise in wages and the practical abolition of serfage was that more and more of the large landowners ceased to farm their own lands by stewards, and let them on leases—often of thirty years, until by 1433 landlord cultivation was almost abandoned. Town corporations and religious houses also leased their lands. Usually the lease was "stock and land"—that is, the stock, live and dead, was leased too, and at the termination of the lease the tenant had to replace it. As everything made of iron was valuable, even rakes and hoes were specified, and spits, and raw iron for mending the ploughs. There were many dairy farms—for them the leases were shorter, no doubt that the landlord might be sure the live-stock was kept up. The landlord always covenanted to keep buildings in repair, and he insured the tenant against the murrain, but not against the scab—for the scab was curable. The utmost loss the tenant could have to bear on the murrain was 10 per cent. These leases of stock and land were advantageous to both sides. The result was to create a great number of freeholders — the ordinary payment for unstocked land was 6d. an acre and twenty years' purchase. The landlord seems to have had rather the worst of the bargain, for if the tenants fell into arrears, he did not know precisely which land to distrain on. We read of a tenancy in Oxfordshire: "Seven capons should come from tenants there, and one does not know whence to collect them." And again: "There is a sum of £56, 13s. 4d., an arrear of ninety-five years, and we do not know what to distrain on" (given by Rogers). Perhaps this accounts for the great number of freeholders—the lord might prefer to sell at twenty years' rent (or ten in the fourteenth century), and be done with it, than to have to whistle for his capons and his arrears, afraid of distraining upon the wrong man. Very often, in a single holding, there would be several leases, not coterminous, for one holding—showing that the tenant had rented additional land. This would increase the difficulty of evicting him. But, in point of fact, there were hardly any evictions. In those days there were not a dozen applicants for one farm; nor was there much moving about. A man liked to take land in his own birthplace. Even in London it was thought very improper to offer a higher rent over the head of a sitting tenant.

Rent for mere use of land changed very little from the earliest times to the end of the fourteenth century.[2] But in the fifteenth century the purchase price of land rose. By the middle of that century, the price was twenty years' purchase.

Rents were often in corn. That is, the tenant paid corn to the money value of the rent. A great advantage of this was, that when corn was cheap, because corn was plenty (the only reason of cheapness) the tenant gave more corn, but had more to give. In years when corn was dear because it was scarce, he gave less—but it was worth as much to the landlord. Of course a corn rent could always be paid in money, if the tenant preferred it.[2]


  1. France suffered incalculably more than England. England was never the battlefield of her foreign wars. The inevitable devastations caused by the marching of armies fell on her enemies, not on herself. The pestilences which invariably follow war helped the depopulation of France. The Black Plague, which we call the Black Death, was not the only pestilence, though it was the worst, which raged in France during the Hundred Years. Normandy suffered the most from the war. Twelve parishes with 941 parishioners in the thirteenth century were reduced to 246 inhabitants during the English occupation.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The rents which have been reserved in corn, have preserved their value much better than those which have been reserved in money, even where the denomination of the coin has not been altered.