THE ECONOMIC HISTORY REVIEW SECOND SERIES, VOLUME XXVI, No. 4, 1973 The Black Death B Y A . R . B R I D B U R Y T HE fourteenth century was a century of violent contrasts. Unparalleled military triumph was followed by humiliating military failure and defeat. Kingship was raised to a culminating point of glory by Edward III who was, for contemporaries, the embodiment ofthe feudal virtues, only to be dis- graced by a successor, his grandson Richard II, who had to be bundled off the sta?e amid scenes of pubHc scandal and private degradation which moved one modern %rater to conclude that "in the end the case for deposing him looked stronger than the case for deposing his great-grandfather" .1 And the century witnessed, in the unprecedented famines and epidemics that marked its course, an assault on the social system at its base which was infinitely deadlier than any which it had sustained at its apex by way of military loss or political subversion. Yet the result of this assault was to inaugurate a century of prosperity for the vast majority of the population, the like of which was not to be known again for generations to come. The new age, which was not without its problems for contemporaries, is not without its problems for us. Everyone knows that the extraordinary reversal of the established order of things which inaugurated this new age was caused by the decline ofthe population. But no one is quite sure as to when that decline began. It is tempting to look back on the succession of famines and pestilences that mark- ed the course ofthe fourteenth century, as Mr Saltmarsh once did, and see the recuperative vitality ofthe population progressively weakened by loss and de- bility.2 But the statistics of wages and prices make it very difficult to credit this plausible account of what happened. If the population had declined substan- tially as a result of either the famines or the early visitations of bubonic plague then'land should have lost value as its scarcity diminished. As rents fell, dragging prices after them, wages should have risen. Many years ago when Prof. Postan iM.McKisack, TAeFoarfeOTfACOTferj', r507-J5g9(O3rford, I959),p. 497- . , ^ r ., 2 J. Saltmarsh, 'Plague and Economic Decline in England in the Later Middle Ages, Cambndge Historical Journal, va (1941). 577
578 A. R. BRIDBURY formulated his revealing analysis of the labour market, he warned those who would use wage statistics as a measure of population decline to beware of the exaggerated response of wage-rates to such decline.^ He pointed out that falling rents attract wage-earners into tenant-farnxing with the result that the supply of wage-earners is depleted more sharply than the supply of labour, with dispro- portionate effects upon the wage-rate. But the statistics of wages and prices do not indicate by the slightest movement that there was any change in the relative scarcities of land and labour until very near the end ofthe century.
You've reached the end of your free preview.
Want to read all 17 pages?
- Spring '20
- Prof. Phelps Brown