The Social and Economic Consequences of the Great Decline in Population

The social and economic consequences of the great decline in population between the mid-fourteenth and the late fifteenth centuries have been much dis- cussed, and some points remain controversial. As we have seen, Europe in the early 1300s manifested many signs of a society with cheap labor and expensive land. To some extent the Black Death reversed that picture; Europe, now population-short, experienced rising labor costs and falling land costs. Especially in western Europe, the drastic depopulation forced landlords to lower rents, to replace fixed-term rents with share-cropping arrangements, to offer higher wages for agricultural labor, and to commute the traditional labor services demanded of peasants by lords. Considerable regional variation in such effects could be found; in some cases, for example, deaths among the tenantry enabled landlords to let out lands on new terms that freed them from long-term custom- ary arrangements favorable to a tenant family.20 But in many places in western Europe the lives of peasants improved as the obligations of manorialism fell away. Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie’s classic study of the peasants of Languedoc shows them enjoying the results of abundant and cheap land and high wages in the second half of the fourteenth century and the fifteeenth century.21

For many European landowners the serious depopulation of 1347–1353 cre- ated problems: lower rent receipts, a shortage of tenants, perhaps higher wages to pay, perhaps lower prices for the produce of their lands as demand for those products fell. Landlords had several options. They could join employers every- where in attempts to hold wages down by statutes that could be enforced with state power, or to use other legislative or judicial means to control labor (such as restricting the laborers’ geographical mobility). Several European states adopted such measures in the years after 1348—for example, the English Statute of Labourers of 1349—and serious social and political grievances often resulted.

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