It’s difficult to imagine the horrors that would have been felt across the world as the infamous ‘Black Death’ ravaged the population. The sheer fear that must have been felt as they desperately tried to find a cause and reason behind the illness that was claiming so many, some even believing that this mass loss of life was a sign of the end of humanity itself, the sign of an oncoming apocalypse.

One of the starkest demonstrations we can see of medieval attitudes towards death and the social aspects of society is that of a folk tale ‘The Three living and Three dead’. The story itself can be traced back to as early a the 13th century, however in the 14th and 15th centuries it gains a greater popularity and expansion in its narrative and becoming an iconic piece of 15th century literature. Its basic concept of three noble men hunting in the forest only to meet three living corpses at differing stages of decomposition sounds like an opening line of a rather morbid joke. But the tale delves deep into the fears of the age and inescapable reality of mortality. The three dead men serve as direct parallels to the three living nobles. The dead men themselves having once been nobility (And in some variations of the tale, Kings). The horrified nobles are given a sobering message from the dead men about how their lives are short, their worldly wealth is ultimately meaningless. The dead men suffer as animated corpses for the sins they committed in their lifetimes, making them unable to rest. This very warning can give insight into the social consciousness as well as obvious enduring Christian values. This warning is more relevant in the world following The Black Death


A miniature of the Three Living (a pope, an emperor, and a king) and the Three Dead (wearing matching crowns), at the beginning of thee Office of the Dead, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1480 – c. 1490, Harley MS 2917, f. 119r

‘Make me your mirror! [ …] While I was a man on earth, my crimes were heinous. I thought it a capital idea to treat farmers with contempt – for that I was hated by villagers and servants – but never did a king with his entourage seem to me so faultless […] Behave in such a way that you don’t dread judgement – we have no longer enough time to tell you – but turn away from your trifles in good time.’

So, what can we glimmer about society from this folk tale? The loss of life vastly depleted the population, particularly among the poor communities, labour and skilled workers where in shorter supply. Most estimates range from 40-50% of Europe’s population having died with up to 80% of the population in more severely affected areas being wiped out. Therefore, adding a greater need for being more accommodating for the peasant class and subjects under the nobility. Many scholars have cited the black death causing a labour shortage thus giving more power to the common man; they could gain more money for the same work in the wake of the mass illness. Those who survived now gained a new level of social mobility that would not have been possible before the outbreak.  The entail aftermath having caused a troubled economic state, being that fields and livestock that had been neglected during the years of illness had left survivors in the midst of a food and goods shortage. There was a desperate need to recover this deficit or else those who lived would be at risk of being wiped out by starvation. This increased the demand for services to work land. Farmers and skilled land workers where being hired by multiple people to make up for the loss in the population. The average western European rural peasant was not only potentially being paid more for their service to multiple masters rather than being tethered to just one, but many had reaped the benefits of having more food (Notably the average man consumed more meat and dairy in the decades following the end of The Black Death) and lower land prices. Figures even suggest that the purchasing power of rural labourers increased by 40%.

The new inflation in the cost of labour is highly significant in the eyes of many historians as being a lynch pin in dismantling feudalism and limiting the powers of the elite. The immediate reaction of many European nations to create a legislation over wages.  This again bears some resemblance to one of the warnings in the aforementioned tale; respect and power cold be lost when the subjects where displeased. It would be the skilled workers that rose in power in this period, having capitalised on the value that their trades brought them in a time where demand was high but workers where in short supply. They recognised that they had the gentry in somewhat of a corner, priming them to fight against this legislation on payment. These where the Yeomen; the former monitory of peasant landowners (Almost the equivalent of a lower middle class) that now swelled in number and therefore influence. To put this into context we can look to ‘The Statute of labours’, issued in England 1351, it set out laws for how much peasants could earn for their duties and furthermore setting up an implication that peasants should be subordinate to those who could employ them as it also decreed that any healthy man under the age of 60 who desired to hire them. It was as if law was trying to retreat to the safety of 1346, going a far ass setting up increasingly harsh punishments to those who violated this law. Men could face fines or even jail time if they dared demand a higher wage. However, this law was very scarcely followed as many employers found loopholes to win over the alliance of workers. Mainly achieved though offering forms of payment in the way of additional food or other goods in addition to a wage, thereby not violating the law. Other causes of grievance that derived from The Statute of Labours concerned forcing trades men (Such as food and textiles) to sell their goods at what the law deemed to be a reasonable price, trying to limit the obvious inflation that had taken place. Further action in 1363 further caused tension as ‘Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel’ took a nearly dystopian form, dictating laws concerning how each class where allowed to dress and how much they could spend on textiles attempting to limit the lower classes mimicking the elite.

Unsurprisingly these economic changes are considered one of the numerous factors leading to the peasantry uprisings in Europe towards the end of the 14th century. Forced caps on wages and trading in addition to taxation was an obvious recipe for social disorder. The new worth and independence that the decades had brought sent waves of rebellion and resistance across Western Europe in particular. England’s own most famous example would be ‘The Peasants revolt’ of 1381. It took direct inspiration from the sermons of John Ball, a cleric who radically taught of social equality and the rights of the common man. Even lending is voice to the rebellion one it had started. Speaking to the rebel’s in 1381 he defiantly stated;
“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty”

These new ideas could not be quashed; the rebellion in response to the legislation was proof of that. The revolt of 1381 of course was to end in the bloody demise of its leader and the rebels disbanding. However, it would not be fair to call it an utter loss. Serfdom continued to crumble, rural wages continued to increase and more people where buying their freedom. Landlords and gentry had become even more cautious of the peasants below them. Unrest continued, some of which as serious as plots to kill local nobility and peasants continued to negotiate wages and rents despite the laws in place forbidding it. Just as before, the gentry found themselves giving into the demands out of necessity and now; a element of fear. Arguably a subtler sign is seen far up as government level in the fact that no further attempt of a poll tax was made on the people. Interest had conveniently shifted to foreign policy. Table

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s