Weird History

What Happened In London And Its Surrounding Countryside Immediately After The Black Plague  

Melissa Sartore
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The Black Plague swept through Europe during the mid-14th century, eliminating millions in its wake. After arriving in England in 1348, the Plague soon reached London, where it raged until early 1350. The population of London declined by as much as half, a demographic shift that had much larger implications in the decades to follow.

In the aftermath of the Plague, London underwent shifts in social stratification. The peasantry was now in a position to assert itself in numerous ways, as formerly landless men and women were able to leverage their survival into higher wages - something employers and the Crown alike attempted to quell.

By the 1380s, tensions between laborers and royal authorities grew to such heights that London faced an all-out revolt. Compounded by war costs, an overall decline in authority, and a general reevaluation of religious and secular order, London and the whole of England became the site of unprecedented change.

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The Catholic Church Began To Lose Power And Relevance

Most scholars agree that the Black Plague resulted in the decline of Roman Catholic authority across Europe (although not all historians accept this idea). Just as Englishmen and women questioned the authority of royal officials, they also looked at the Church with increased skepticism. As people questioned how God could allow so much suffering, questions about his will arose

In England, specifically, the rise of Lollardy - under the leadership of University of Oxford theologian and philosopher John Wycliffe - highlighted shifting religious beliefs. Groups like the Lollards questioned papal authority and many teachings of the Catholic Church in the years following the Black Plague. Fundamentally convinced that true religious authority rested in the Bible and the Bible alone, Wycliffe translated the text into English to free it from the restrictions of the Latin language.

Wycliffe also questioned papal authority in sacraments, notably the Eucharist. Transubstantiation - the process by which the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ - was, by Wycliffe's reasoning, impossible, because the bread and the body could not occupy the same space at the same time. Wycliffe's many grievances with the Catholic Church and his outspoken nature gained him many followers. Men like John Ball, a Lollard preacher who had a key role in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, advocated for a class-free society, reportedly calling for Englishmen to "cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty" as had been "appointed... by God."

Although the Protestant Reformation was still more than a century in the making, Ball's ideas were in line with many of the notions that resulted in the 16th-century schism within Christianity. 

Another aspect of Church decline was the simple loss of life among the clergy. Clergy members, especially those in the close confines of monasteries, experienced high levels of mortality during the outbreak of the Black Plague. Between 39-49% of clergymen in England perished, according to some estimates. With vacant offices, pastoral care fell by the wayside.

A Third Of London's Buildings Remained Uninhabited

With the loss of so many lives in London during the late 1340s - perhaps as much as 45% of the population - the city experienced a decline in inhabitants. By 1357, roughly one-third of the buildings in London were vacant, comparable to how other cities around Europe fared.

According to The Chronicle of Henry Knighton, "After the plague many buildings, both large and small, in all the cities, boroughs, and downships, decayed and were utterly razed to the ground for want of occupants."

Because fewer businessmen, merchants, and workers lived in London, it was residences and places of business alike that found themselves without use. If you were a Plague survivor, however, the uninhabited property may have been something you could capitalize on. Markets like the one in St Pancras expanded in terms of land, while wealthy businessmen such as Adam Fraunceys acquired land and built new shops where old ones once stood. 

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Employers Were Given The Ability To Imprison Laborers

While employers didn't place workers into stocks themselves, legislative action in the aftermath of the Plague in England gave them a lot of power over their laborers. According to the Ordinance of Laborers, issued in 1349, "If any reaper, mower, or other workman or servant, of what estate or condition that he be, retained in any man's service, do depart from the said service without reasonable cause or license, before the term agreed, he shall have pain of imprisonment."

This was issued in response to overall labor shortages during the late 1340s and 1350s, which resulted from so many mortalities. Workers had their pick of vocations and, as a result, were prone to leaving one position in search of something more lucrative. While migrations of a sort were common during harvest season, the extent to which post-Plague laborers ventured away from home and into urban centers vastly increased.

By 1388, the Crown issued the Statute of Cambridge, which forbade wandering out of one's own community to find work without a license. This was meant to keep the onus of poverty relief on hundreds of villages and localized administrative districts instead of on cities like London.

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Wages Increased Despite The Government's Efforts To Limit Them

In the years following the outbreak of the Plague, the English government tried to limit wages numerous times. The 1349 Ordinance of Laborers instructed employers to pay the same wages they'd paid before the giant labor shortage, and workers were told not to expect more in wages than they'd received in the past.

Enforcing the 1349 legislation was problematic for every industry, including weavers, agricultural workers, cheesemakers, and brewers. In 1351, King Edward III issued the Statute of Laborers to more clearly define the Crown's policy on wages. According to the law, men and women "should be obliged to serve in return for the salaries and wages which were customary (in those places where they ought to serve) during the twentieth year of the present king’s reign (1346-7) or five or six years previously."

Justices of Laborers were tasked with hearing cases related to excessive wages, but violations continued and wages still rose. For example, in Essex in 1352, there were 7,556 fines issued to people for violating the 1351 law.