Agricultural wage labour in fifteenth-century England
By Gerald Liu
PhD Dissertation, Durham University (2012)
Abstract: This dissertation is researching the employment of different types of agricultural labourer in the ending phase of the middle ages. The purpose is to question the method of using casual wage evidence to interpret changes in the labourer’s income in the current study of late medieval economic history. My criticism of the traditional method is that, since casual wage evidence is composed of the price of finishing a piece of work, it is inappropriate to use that evidence to interpret incomes without the information of how many pieces of work done by the labourer. The said information is, indeed, mostly unavailable.
My proposition to solve this problem is to use the salaries paid to the permanent farm worker, who was hired by year. The approach of this research is, firstly, to demonstrate the limitations of the traditional method and, secondly, to demonstrate that the salary paid to the permanent worker is a useful tool for understanding the changes in the labourer’s income. In particular, the discussion is separated into five chapters.
At first, I intend to illustrate that casual wage evidence illustrates only one aspect of the fifteenth-century agricultural labour market and that from the same source material more information apart from wage data is available and allows us to examine other aspects of wage labour. With the information, I shall argue that job opportunities in the casual sector were limited by farming seasons; and that, except for a few villagers, casual employment only accounted for a minor part of the yearly income. It shall be illustrated that apart from casual labourers, the manorial demesne employed the other two types of labourers, who were potentially more important than casual labourers in terms of the cost and the labour input.
Between the two, labour services were persistently employed, but their important were dwindling, whilst the permanent workers were the main labour force purposely maintained on the demesne. This finding proves that the employment of casual labour was relatively insignificant. It also illustrates that the permanent posts were a more secure source of income than casual hire. In this context, casual hire was paid higher daily wages, but its availability was limited; the permanent contract was poorly paid, but it guaranteed a secure livelihood across the year. This explains why, when job opportunities were relatively expanded in the casual sector during labour shortage, labourers would turn down permanent contracts for casual hire, in the hope for a better income.
Following this context, we would expect to see that during our period, when depopulation was continued, the employer of permanent workers was forced to improve the job offer to match the potential income a labourer could earn in the casual sector. The trend in the value of the permanent labourer’s salary, therefore, should reflect the changes in the agricultural labourer’s income in general. An index of the permanent labourer’s salary will be presented to illustrate this rising trend.