..It was while this struggle was growing in intensity that a yet more formidable difficulty met the lords who had been driven, by the enfranchisement of their serfs, to rely on hired labour. Everything depended on the abundant supply of free labourers, and this abundance suddenly disappeared.
The most terrible plague which the world ever witnessed advanced at this juncture from the East, and after devastating Europe from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Baltic, swooped at the close of 1348 upon Britain.
Disease and Death
The traditions of its destructiveness, and the panic-struck words of the statutes which followed it, have been more than justified by modern research. Of the three or four millions who then formed the population of England, more than one-half were swept away in its repeated visitations. Its ravages were fiercest in the greater towns, where filthy and undrained streets afforded a constant haunt to leprosy and fever.
In the burial ground which the piety of Sir Walter Manny purchased for the citizens of London, a spot whose site was afterwards marked by the Charter House, more than fifty thousand corpses are said to have been interred.
Nearly sixty thousand people perished at Norwich, while in Bristol the living were hardly able to bury the dead. But the Black Death fell on the village almost as fiercely as on the town. More than one-half of the priests of Yorkshire are known to have perished; in the diocese of Norwich two-thirds of the parishes were left without incumbents.
The whole organisation of labour was thrown out of gear. The scarcity of hands made it difficult for minor tenants to perform the services due for their lands, and only a temporary abandonment of half the rent by the landowners induced the farmers to refrain from the abandonment of their farms. For the time, cultivation became impossible. “The sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn,” says a contemporary, “and there were none left who could drive them.”
Even when the first burst of panic was over, the sudden rise of wages consequent on the enormous diminution in the supply of free labour, though accompanied by a corresponding rise in the price of food, rudely disturbed the course of industrial employments; harvests rotted on the ground and fields were left untilled, not merely from scarcity of hands, but from the strife which now for the first time revealed itself between Capital and Labour.
Public Disorder and Unemployment
While the landowners of the country and the wealthier craftsmen of the town were threatened with ruin by what seemed to their age the extravagant demands of the new labour class, the country itself was torn with riot and disorder. The outbreak of lawless self-indulgence which followed everywhere in the wake of the plague told especially upon the “landless men,” wandering in search of work, and for the first time masters of the labour market; and the wandering labourer or artisan turned easily into the “sturdy beggar,” or the bandit of the woods.
Restrictions on Movement of Labour
A summary redress for these evils was found by the Parliament and the Crown in a royal ordinance which was subsequently embodied in he Statute of Labourers. “Every man or worman, ” runs this famous Act, “or whatsoever condition, free or bond, able in body, and within the age of three score years… and not having of his own whereof he may live, nor land of his own about the tillage of which he may occupy himself, and not serving any other, shall bound to serve the employer who shall require him to do so, and shall take only the wages which were accustomed to be taken in the neighbourhood where he is bound to serve” two years before the plague began. A refusal to obey was punished by imprisonment. Sterner measures were soon found to be necessary. Not only was the price of labour fixed by the Parliament of 1350, but the labour class was once more tied to the soil. The labourer was forbidden to quit the parish where he lived in search of better-paid employment; if he disobeyed he became a ‘fugitive’ and subject to imprisonment at the hand of the justices of the peace.
Taken from “A short history of the English People” by John Richard Green, published 1877.