Farming after the plague

The Black Death lasted about 3 years, but only about one year in any one place. After that, each regional economy, and Europe as a whole, began to recover. The men and women who’d taken the places of the ones who died probably continued to plow, sow and harvest. But almost immediately, prices were destabilized and long-term changes set in motion.

When nearly half the population has died in one year, the food planted for them is enough and too much for the survivors. Demand goes down; prices fall. For buyers, this is great. People who managed to survive the plague could eat much bigger meals now. There was more grain to turn into beer. Although many cattle, sheep and pigs had died too, there was still a bit more meat to go around.

Even better for workers, demand for labor goes up. Low-skill, weak workers used to be unemployable, but now they could walk into any farm harvest and ask for top dollar (or top silver denier). Jobs in town were the same way; apprenticeships had been disrupted and many jobs were open.

At first, it wasn’t a big difference, just a comfortable one. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die” was the motto of the next decade, and they really did earn more, eat more and drink more. But then the plague came back, just when the post-plague babies were turning 8, 9 and 10. These young men and women who were about to become the plow and harvest teams were hit hard by the epidemic. More adults died too, of course. About five years later, coming up toward 1365, the labor market changed.

There simply were not enough farm workers. Town life was somewhat easier and certainly more sociable, so many young people had gone off to fill in the labor shortages in cities. The only way landlords kept peasants down on the farm was to block them, legally, from leaving. In feudal theory, every peasant born on the land owed farm service to the landowner. He or she could only leave by paying off the lifetime service that should have been given. When a girl married onto another manor, the family had to give some in-kind payment to the landlord; when a boy went to town to learn a trade, they also paid. By default, that child owed a lifetime of part-time labor just by being born there.

The feudal law was clearly unjust to workers, by 1370. Peasants could get much better wages in town than on the land, where their labor was taken for granted and cash was only raised by their own market gardening. They began to ask the landlord to pay them wages. Sounds fair enough. But prices were still dropping, and the landlords were the wholesalers of farm produce. When they couldn’t get pre-plague prices at market, they couldn’t pay post-plague wages to their workers. Now what?


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