4 - Plague, trade wars and the Peasants' Revolt

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  • Black Death kills a 1/5 to 1/4 of population - those who survive have greater demand for their labour and thus some bargaining power for the first time since Norman serfdom.
  • This leads to first maximum wage set to prevent peasants from gaining too much independence.
  • Hundred Year War with France, largely financed by merchant capital to gain control of the Flemish wool industry and weavers1 ...(processing raw materials is where the profit is - wool into cloth)
  • First ever poll tax to finance war (two weeks wages for entire population, three times in a couple of years)
  • Peasants' Revolt

songs, poems, quotes and stories - John Ball by Sydney Carter - [http://threeacresandacow.co.uk/2013/12/john-ball-by-sydney-carter/]

Hugh Lupton and Rachel Rose Reid both have performed stories incorporating the quote from John Ball's speech at Blackheath to the crowd before they marched on London:

"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 ( if ye will ) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty."

Do play with the language of this, it can be translated in more than one way - there are various other translations online if you have a search.

washing line

  • 1349 Black Death
  • 1351 Statute of Labourers
  • 1377 First poll tax
  • 1381 Peasants' Revolt

Sample Text

The next big milestone to put up here is the Black Death... The plague killed somewhere around a quarter of the population and if you were lucky enough to survive there was a huge increase in the demand for your labour as there were so few people left to work the land.

This resulted in 'serfs', people who were still owned by their Norman landlords, winning their freedom and starting to earn wages for the first time, perhaps we could get away with saying that this period marked the beginning of the wage economy...

The ruling classes despised the new power and autonomy their serfs were gaining and within two years we see the first laws setting maximum wages. It was to be many many hundreds of years until we were to have anything which might be considered a national minimum wage but there you have it 1351, the statute of labourers setting a maximum wage for the first time.

The plague also lead to an increase in the speed of land enclosure as large land owners tried to peg the balance back in their favour though farming sheep rather than food which required less of the scarce labour.


To add insult to injury, now that people had the possibilities of freedom and income it was decided that they should also start to be taxed to pay for foreign wars. Prior to this all wars were funded by large Norman landowners who stood to benefit from victory through increasing their domains.

During this period England was in the middle of a hundred year war with France which was arguably the first ever trade war, fought to gain control of the Flemish wool and cloth markets where much profit was being made from trading English wool and processing it into cloth.

In 1379 and then twice more in a three year period the tax man came and knocked on your door asking everyone regardless of gender or age for roughly two weeks wages. They got away with this twice but the third time sparked an incident which led to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Somewhere in the region of 50,000 people marched on London led by Watt Tyler who now has a car park named after him in Essex, {please note - this is a joke... I think he actually has several streets and a park named after him}, Johanna Ferrour who led the assault on the Tower Of London and personally ordered the beheading of the much hated Archbishop of Canterbury, Kings Treasurer and the fellow who had come up with the poll tax.

Another leader was John Ball, a hedge priest who had become widely renown by the people but despised by his superiors who had kicked him out of the church and had him thrown into a dungeon for preaching sermons on equality inspired by passages of the bible which were previously kept from them.

Perhaps a bit more spiel about sydney carter and or john ball before singing the song...