The late Middle Ages in Europe was a time of vast social, economic and political change. Catastrophic events such as the Great Famine of 1315-1321, The Hundred Years war between England and France spanning from 1337 – 1453, the Black Death of 1347-1352, and The Peasants Revolt of 1381, each contributed to these social, economic and political changes in Europe in their own distinct ways. Two of these events, The Black Plague and The Peasants Revolt, will be examined.
The Black Death, so-called due to the black pustules that appeared on the sufferer’s skin, was responsible for decimating one third of Europe’s population. The plague did not discriminate between the wealthy and the poor, for no-one was immune. So great was the impact of the plague on society that women were allowed to administer the Last Rites to the dying, which would have been unthinkable prior to the events of 1347. This event was not paradigmatic; bubonic plague had been present in Europe long before the fourteenth century. But this time it was different. Such was the impact of the death toll from this scourge that the very foundation of feudal society was shaken to its core. No longer was the serf or peasant beholden to their lord, for the lack of workers meant that the peasantry could demand wages for their labor. In 1349, contemporary Italian commentator Bocaccio wrote of the impact of The Black Death on his native Florence: “Others held a more cruel opinion, one that in the end probably guaranteed their safety, saying that there was no better or more effective medicine against the disease than to run away from it”. And run away they did, for prior to the Black Death peasants were tied to the manor upon which they were born. A serf was born, lived and toiled, and died in the one geographical area – the manor and its estates, and the nearby village. Their world was small. During the Black Death, as Bocaccio commented, people were so terrified that they broke with centuries of tradition and left the area of their birth, both to escape the ravages of the plague and also to seek a livelihood elsewhere. Never before in the medieval period had there been so much movement in Europe. And those that did flee often prospered in their new lives, establishing a new middle class that had not previously existed in Europe under the feudal system. It was these social and economic changes in medieval European society that contributed to another transformational event, The Peasants Revolt of 1381.
Embolden by these new freedoms, the lower classes sought to continually strive for better living conditions, and demanded that the powerful nobility grant them greater rights. The events of 1381 in England were a remarkable example of the aspirations of the lower classes in Europe during the Middle Ages. On June 15, 1381, in an open field called Smithfield, just outside of London, ordinary men and women led by commoner Wat Tyler, and priest John Ball, petitioned the young King Richard II to drop the Poll Tax which was crippling poor families. This tax was meant to raise revenue for foreign war campaigns. As well as having this tax abolished, the peasants also wanted the freedom to choose their employer. While the revolt itself was quelled when Tyler was killed on the field that day, the long-term implications of this and other such uprisings throughout England marked the beginning of the end for serfdom. Contemporary chronicler Thomas Walsingham wrote of the uprising: “…the king ordered that the written and sealed charter that they had requested should be handed to them…Once they had this charter, the commons returned to their homes.” The charter which Walsingham referred to was one in which serfdom was abolished. However, once the king’s forces had re-established control of the people, Richard rescinded his offer on the grounds that he had been forced to have the charter drawn up. Despite this backward step, the Poll Tax was indeed dismissed, meaning that King Richard had to work towards more peaceful relations with foreign powers. Hence The Peasants Revolt led to political change. In the long-term, the institution of feudalism was destined to crumble, which it had by the end of the medieval period. This event heralded economic changes too, for the lower classes now received higher wages.
In terms of social, political and economic impact, the importance of several events in Europe in the Middle Ages, cannot be underestimated. The Black Death killed so many people that peasants could demand more money and more freedom. This led to social and economic change, with the eventual establishment of a new middle class. Similarly, The Peasants Revolt also fueled change, including political change, forcing the English king to provide greater rights and better working conditions for the peasant class, and also forcing him to strive for peace. So great was the nature of these changes that, by the end of the medieval period, the feudal system that had once maintained rigid suppression and control of the poor had completely disintegrated. Medieval society itself had changed. The powerful nobility had no choice but to concede to the demands of their workers, for without the labor and industry of their serfs, it had become abundantly apparent that they had nothing.
- “Bocaccio: The Decameron, “Introduction””. Fordham University, The Jesuit University of New
York, accessed June 23, 2016.
- Rosemary Horrox, ed. and trans., The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1994), 16–21, 23, 194–97, 207, 208, 219–22.
- Thomas Walsingham, “Historia Anglicana I,” in R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, 2d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1983), 169–76, 178–81.