English Legal History and its Materials

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Unfreedom and the Black Death

By Justin Maffett

The Black Death was a pivotal moment in English legal history, having ushered in a wave of economic and social changes that transformed unfreedom of both people and property into freedom. However, this was by contingency only. Though there had been a movement towards greater freedom prior to 1348, it was really the Black Death and its devastating economic effects that disrupted England’s feudal relations – which had been “a primary method of social organization” – that led to the social transformation of unfreedom to freedom (Palmer 1).

From Unfreedom to Freedom of People and Property

According to some measures, upwards of a third of England’s population died during the first outbreak of the plague (1348-50), which brought about a demographic crisis of catastrophic proportion. The immediate effects were economic to where the loss of labor led to a dramatic loss in productivity. Farmlands owned by barons and other noblemen lay idle, which led to an evaporation of income. Villeins took advantage of the economic opportunity by wielding their newfound market power in the competitive marketplace for labor by demonstrating their unwillingness to work and by demanding hire wages. Meanwhile, lords were reluctant to enforce their rights to compel service for fear of driving away labor.

This of course upset the status quo of social order. “The terrible mortality from this plague completely disorganized the manorial system, which had hitherto depended on a plentiful supply of labor born and bred within the manor,” Plunkett explains (32). As lords competed for free labor, servile inhabitants were tempted to leave their estates to become hired laborers. Lords were no longer able to find servile labor, which forced them to either lease their lands to free labor or “tacitly conced[e] to their peasants the benefits of ownership in their holdings” (Plunkett 33). As a consequence, the villein slowly developed “customary property rights in the land he worked” (Plunkett 33).

Re-Stabilizing the Status Quo of Unfreedom

What had started as an economic crisis quickly became a threat to the social order too. Those in bound service to their lords abandoned the manors and sought free labor elsewhere. Prior to the Black Death, the government generally did not involve itself in local matters like the relationship between lords and their laborers. Social organization was basically regional. Law itself was used in litigation to resolve claims in other matters, but it was not really used in a positive way as a means of social control. However, in the two decades following the first outbreak, “the government exerted itself to retain the old structure of society, primarily through enforcement of the Ordinance and Statute of laborers” (Palmer 5). Here, governance changed significantly such that the government was intent on using law and statutes to control society and preserve the status quo (Palmer 5).

The government promulgated the Ordinance of Laborers within a year for the initial outbreak. The key provisions of the statute called for coercion to work and to work at accustomed wages. “All able bodied people under sixty years old were required to labor. Testimony by two ben before various local officials was sufficient to jail those who refused to work or to work at the accustomed wages…” (Palmer 18). The Ordinance demonstrated the government’s willingness to regulate not just labor but manorial relationships that had traditionally fallen outside the purview of the law. Now the government would approach workers from an economic perspective.

The Villein’s Return(?) to Unfreedom

Though it can be said that the villein benefitted greatly from the Black Death, owing to the general transformation from unfreedom to “freedom” in both an economic and social sense, it would be misleading to call the villein or even the free man completely free. If anything, a more apt claim would be that they became less unfree. Some of the statutory shifts included changes to criminal rights, which benefitted the upper class more than any other group because they were the ones who knew how and when to invoke these rights. The government also adopted a number of punitive remedies and occupational liabilities that disproportionately affected those in the labor force. Moreover, though free men were typically enjoyed access to the common law, villeins however were still denied access, even after the plague. The villein still lacked any ordinary recourse at common law that would protect him from his lord. This is important because it was through the common law that the government sought to regulate “the lives and fortunes of all substantial and many insignificant Englishmen” (Palmer 3).


Admittedly, the importance of the villein’s status waned in the decades following the Black Death. But it is also true that there are other factors that could have contributed to this. First and foremost, the authority granted to the upper class through the Ordinance and Statute of Laborers was in many ways a substitute or possibly even a stronger mechanism of social control than status. The argument here is that the authority here could be wielded against both free and villein alike, while before the lord only enjoyed coercive control over the villein.

That said, the Black Death was nonetheless a pivotal moment in English legal history, having ignited what would become a “silent revolution” that allowed for the majority of serfs to gradually gain economic independence. The transition from unfreedom to freedom was on the horizon, for the move towards the emancipation of villeins had been in motion for some time prior to 1348. However, no one could have predicted either the outbreak of the Black Death or its devastating economic and social effects on England. It’s for this reason that we must acknowledge that this transformation of unfreedom of both people and property into freedom in the history of the English law was in fact by contingency only.

-- JustinMaffett - 26 Dec 2017


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