Little Freedoms: So-Called ‘Liberation’ in the Wake of the Black Death 

Written by Ailsa Fraser

Common perceptions of the time after the Black Death in Britain are that it was one of comparative liberation for most peasants, due to the decreased population and their subsequently increased bargaining power enabling them to demand higher wages and treatment. However, this is not necessarily true. This conception looks at the power of market forces at the expense of other factors, such as social expectations, practical limitations, and legal restrictions. Therefore, while the market forces in the wake of the Black Death did favour labourers, it must be questioned whether this actually entailed liberation, as well as who this liberation was for.  

Not only did areas differ in their prospects—during this period, the southeast of England grew wealthier while the south of Wales suffered—but so too did peasants. While old restrictions were increasingly overcome by the new circumstances, they were often replaced by new ones. A ‘crisis of lordship’ led to laws regulating everything from peasants’ wages to their dress in an attempt to maintain the status quo. As such, this idea of increased liberation must be nuanced to understand societal shifts in this period—and how landlords responded to them. In particular, the conflict between liberation and limitation in all these points can be illustrated through the plight of women, whose economic power increased, but who saw a decrease in rights and social standing. 

So, was this a time of liberation at all? Serfdom certainly faded: in England, landlords struggled to stop serfs from leaving and other landlords welcomed any labour that came. This affected family dynamics: the nuclear family replaced the functionally extended family, which was a more mobile unit. Bolton argues that this allowed for the severance of ties between family and land; because of this shift, labourers and their families were more able to move to find better work and increase their wages. This can arguably also explain why people married later, as the financial stability of marriage was no longer required to support a large family. However, Bolton overlooks that this was not for everyone. Tenancies were let out on fixed contracts, so freeholding was the only secure way of holding land. Wealth was needed to acquire more land, therefore advantaging the wealthier peasants. In addition to this, the increased movement during this period saw the safety net of the community eroded for the poor. Elderly people with no nearby relatives to support them may have struggled.  

Furthermore, while serfdom declined, laws limited any freedoms gained. Chevage, a required tribute that would be paid to the landlord, grew less common, but legal mobility restrictions meant that private contracts became a matter of policy, not negotiation. This decreased peasants’ mobility as the lords could exert strict control over their labourers. Manorial courts were used to enforce the landlord’s will to keep peasants in line. For example, John Clench and John Soule were both put in stocks and fined for saying they were not serfs in 1360, when the Bishop of Norwich’s manorial courts struck down their claim, with the court declaring it an ‘unjust rebellion’. This betrays how dangerous lords viewed these attempts at mobility. There may have been increased liberation, but it was vehemently opposed by the people in power. 

This is especially clear when one examines women in this period. A lack of labour let them gain more financial independence, but in underpaid, unskilled work. They remained unable to work in political roles such as guilds, nor undertake an apprenticeship. Their political rights even deteriorated, due to backlash again what little liberation they had gained. The social concept that independent women were ‘domineering shrews’ proliferated. Manorial court records show that accusations of scolding, a crime usually brought against women which condemned them for being too quarrelsome, skyrocketed; women’s attempts to raise the hue and cry were increasingly distrusted. Just as it denied serfs their freedom, the legal system was also used to disempower women in the wake of their economic success.  

The law did not stop there. Similar to how labour laws replaced serfdom, previous restrictions evolved into a new form. The 1349 Ordinance and the 1351 Statute of Labourers outlawed both asking for and offering wages higher than those from before the Black Death, as well as refusing to work, or breaking a contract by leaving early. However, in this case, it does seem that these restraints were weaker than previous years. Chroniclers complained about labourers successfully demanding higher wages anyway. While the chroniclers may be exaggerating, since what they say does not match manorial records, such records are unlikely to record illegal activities, so this likely did happen in secret. Legal restrictions could therefore not totally overrule economic freedom.  

However, this was a minor win. The statute remained powerful. Many villagers were very motivated to prosecute offenders: the fine would contribute to the village’s lay subsidy, so other members of the village would have to pay less of it. This meant, again, that landless labourers were harmed, while wealthier villagers thrived. Old restraints were removed for the wealthy—just as the wealthy could take advantage of the land surplus—but for the poor they remained. Taxation was also far more intense than it had been. Between 1350 and 1420 an average of £90,000 was collected per year, which would have further restricted many peasants financially.  

For women, this is especially true, as their employment was rarely stable. Disruption in the generations meant fewer male heirs and more heiresses, but this was not necessarily beneficial, since heiresses were more likely to marry young. Widows—usually viewed as economically free in comparison to their unmarried counterparts—often remarried rather than remain single, since this was more beneficial to them financially. Therefore, while women were more likely to be better of financially in this period, it did not necessarily help their prospects in life. There is evidence that marriage became ‘companionate’ for women, where a woman could control her choice of husband and in many cases did not marry at all. But even with better job opportunities, women often did not remain single; their jobs did not provide the same stability as marriage.  

However, it may be dangerous to assume that remaining unmarried actually reflects a free choice; Mate points out it might not have been by choice at all. Demographic shift due to plague meant there were 90-95 men per 100 women in towns. Estimates from poll taxes suggest about 10% of women remained unmarried. With these statistics together, it is questionable to what extent remaining unmarried was a choice on the woman’s part, or if it was simply that there were not enough men. Nonetheless, these demographic inequalities were reversed in rural areas, so this may not have been as major an issue as it appears. 

Further to this is the question of small freedoms, such as choice over occupation or self-expression. We have already seen how women were legislated against here, through scolding accusations and other restrictions as well as only limited agency in who they married. But such limitations were not just felt by them. Practically, the gap between skilled and unskilled labour did shrink, so wage earners were able to choose their occupation more often. A trend arose where skilled artisans would work in the fields during the summer to make extra money, and in the quiet season labourers would assume a skill, such as carpentry. This does show an increased freedom of choice in workers’ lives. However, this was threatened, again by laws imposed by the landowning class. 1376 grant bille forced migrant workers to return to their home villages for work. Children who had worked as agricultural labourers up to age twelve were banned from working in a different trade. Artisans who were unemployed in the summer months had to work the fields, with any choice in the matter stripped from them. This utterly undermined one’s potential freedom of choice in their occupation. Another law that fought, on a minute and personal level, any increased freedoms was the Sumptuary Law of 1363. Increasing wealth and quality of life for the workers meant they had more leisure time and, crucially, more money to spend on luxury goods. Clothing prices rose, and landowners resented peasants’ new expression of wealth. The Sumptuary Law combated ‘excessive apparel’ and set out what different classes could wear—agricultural workers had to wear clothing that cost less than 12d. While such a law seems petty, it both shows fear over the changing flow of wealth, and the control that landowners could still exert over peasants’ lives.  

Overall, while there were many cases of increased liberation for individual, especially wealthy, peasants, we have to also look at how previous restrictions both remained and evolved to fit the times. We cannot ignore the fact that although economic liberation increased, there were other factors which restricted people’s freedom, such as tools of legal and social power. Market forces undoubtedly favoured a more mobile economy and necessitated the end of serfdom, which wealthy peasants were able to take advantage of, but laws were introduced to restrict this, and the poorer members of a community suffered from the destruction of long-standing support networks. And where these market forces threatened social and material change, landowners and elites did not hesitate to legislate to stop this, restricting everything from wages to what clothes one could wear, in order to maintain the status quo. This was a time of increased economic liberation, but many social and legal restrictions, with a constant back and forth between the two that only the wealthiest peasants in society were able to take advantage of. 


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