By Judith M. Bennett
Past and Present, Vol. 209:1 (2010)
Introduction: In June 1349, as the plague wreaked its first and worst havoc on the people of England, Edward III and his councillors issued the Ordinance of Labourers, a set of rules about service, labour and prices which was revised two years later in the Statute of Labourers. Although born of short-term crisis, these labour regulations flourished in the decades and centuries that followed. They were honed in the later parliaments of Edward, Richard II and the three Henrys who came after; they were digested in the Statute of Artificers in 1563; they were still enforced, at least in part, in the eighteenth century; and only after heated debate were they removed from the statute books in 1814. The English economy became more pastoral, more commercial, and more industrial over these centuries, and its labour markets were transformed accordingly, but the shadow cast by late medieval labour legislation stretched almost half a millennium to the dawn of the nineteenth century. By that time, its effects had spread well beyond England itself, shaping employment law throughout the British Empire and touching, by one estimate, about a quarter of the world’s people. It all began when Edward III and his advisers worried in the summer of 1349 about a harvest threatened by the ‘many people, and especially workers and servants, now dead in this pestilence’.