In the Wake of Death: Socioeconomic Effects of the Black Death in Medieval England
By Meghan Garity
Paper given at the 23rd Annual Research Conference, University of North Georgia, on March 23, 2018
Introduction: Of all the pandemic diseases that have spread through the world, the Black Death is perhaps the most infamous. The plague swept through Europe in the fourteenth century leaving a long line of destruction in its wake. While most people know of the plague’s effects in countries such as Italy and France courtesy of eyewitness accounts provided by such people as Boccaccio from Florence, some areas affected by the plague are swept aside. Recent historians have begun to research these areas which include the Scandinavian countries and the Ottoman empire, but England remains a largely unstudied location.
Despite this lack of study, England experienced rather unique and transformative effects of the Black Death. Unlike most other European states, England was experiencing overpopulation and the crumbling of its traditional socioeconomic system when the plague arrived. Following the mass depopulation that accompanied the plague, England was in a better position to recover and evolve than most other European countries. Lower classes, the workforce of the state, seemed to benefit both economically and socially where elsewhere they struggled to survive. The Church began to lose its hold on power in England though it strengthened in other states. Finally, the nobility suffered more than any other social group, and struggled to maintain their power in the face of the lower classes’ ascension.
In the years following the plague, as peasants and merchants gained more economic freedom, tensions grew between lower and upper classes of society as the upper classes stood to lose their status and way of life. Nobles took drastic steps to regain and hold onto their power, ultimately leading to the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. Although the nobility managed to defeat the peasant forces, a major change occurred in the ideas of social and economic structure. Due to the Black Death, the lower classes of English society gained a new level of respect and importance in the eyes of the nobility that would shape the state’s growth and development into the twenty-first century.