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A CemetaryThe Black Death originated in Asia and arrived in Weymouth, Dorset from Europe in the winter of 1348. Initially it was contained in Southern England but soon spread with great rapidity throughout the country and lasted until the summer of 1349. The main scourge lasted about fourteen months but there were later outbreaks in a less virulent form. The devastation that occurred was a direct result of medieval conditions. The unhygienic environment together with the large population of vermin allowed the plague to proceed throughout the country unhindered. The black rat, which two hundred years earlier was introduced to England from the Crusaders ships returning from the East, was the main mode of transport for the plague in its earlier stages. The migration of the human population would have also have been a factor in the spreading of the plague.

Estimates of the mortality rate vary from 20% to 50% throughout Europe. In England areas that were worst hit had their populations reduced by a third. Records show that land was (at this time) often inherited by minors and this would suggest that there was a higher rate of survival amongst children and young people. It was not only the Black Death that caused the high level of mortality amongst the population. Other diseases such as cholera and influenza infections, which, under the poor conditions of hygiene, would also have contributed to the high death toll.

Because of the large number of deaths there was a general neglect of agricultural operations. Labour and goods became scarce and the level of wages rose considerably. It was the hired labourers (those who had commuted) who prospered but this prosperity caused discontent amongst the villeins (those who were tied to the land). This new appreciation of the value of labour laid bare the economic and social degradation of servitude. A few years after the plague agricultural wages rose, 50% for men and 100% for women. Land however had depreciated. In 1322 land had brought 20% of its capital value, by 1350 this figure went down to 4.5%. The depreciation of land brought into ruin to landowners, but small farmers experienced a period of prosperity because the rising wages made no difference to a farmer who had a working family. These changes caused instability and landlords and tenants began to question the whole structure of medieval society.

In villages where mortality from the plague had been high, the surviving tenants found their agricultural responsibilities much heavier. Before the plague other members of the family had shared this responsibility. After the plague the increased burden brought about new pressures and encouraged people to leave their land and migrate to other villages. This resulted in a loss of revenue for the landlord who was only able to obtain a small money rent for the abandoned land. This new movement of people allowed the plague to infect other areas of the country.

Once the plague had taken hold social disorder and economic chaos became the norm. Many of the workers who were tied to the land (villeins) demanded their release from forced labour. As a result of this within about thirty years free labourers became much more numerous and the disintegration of the manorial system was accelerated. A period of bitterness and unrest continued to disrupt village life for the next one hundred years. By the middle of the fifteenth century the old manorial economy had dissolved and bondage had become almost extinct. Also at this time subsistence farming was gradually replaced by farming for the market.

When the manorial system was in force few people ventured beyond the bounds of their local village; after the Black Death however, there was a considerable increase in mobility, which brought about the extra problem of vagrancy. Those labourers who had left their villages in search of new land to farm were making demands on the landowners that were considered malicious and exorbitant, to combat this there began the long series of the Statutes of Labourers. Parliament quickly passed the statutes making it an offence to demand (or pay) higher wages than had been in force before the plague. This aroused suspicion amongst the labourers who believed the government was taking the side of the landowners. The statutes together with the increased taxation imposed for the French Wars, led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

Because of the decrease in profits that this situation caused some landlords converted their land from arable into pasture. This meant that the landlord only had to employ one shepherd and his boy rather than the many labourers required to cultivate his corn crops. In time the landowners grew rich from the sale of their wool in England and Flanders.