WHAT WAS THE ECONOMY LIKE AFTER THE BLACK DEATH?

It is now generally agreed that the first outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague in England and Wales between 1348 and 1350, killed about 30%-40% of a population of about five to six million. This obviously was to have severe repercussions on the economic and social structures in late medieval England. Such a high death rate meant lower life expectancies, a change in the age of marriage and fertility. It is possible too that the plague affected men more than women, affecting sex ratios with a consequent decline in population. The Black Death also altered attitudes to marriage and having children. These, combined with such a high level of mortality caused what Bolton calls a "demographic catastrophe." (Ormrod pp44). Did this alter the English medieval economy in anyway? Undoubedly it did, for any change in a country's population will in the long term have an effect. So, how was the economy different after 1348?

The English Medieval Economy from 1348

Bridbury writes that the Black Death ushered in a "new age" and a "century of prosperity for the majority of the population". He writes that "the extraordinary reversal of the established order of things which inaugurated this new age was caused by the decline of the population". (Bridbury pp577).

England was a predominantly agricultural economy and this did not change. What did change was the structure of the economy and society because of such a drastic loss in population. As a result labour was scarce and the labourers who remained were in demand. As a consequence wages rose, along with prices and also profits. With fewer people there was an inevitable increase in the ratio of land to people and landlords had to compete for labour, offering benefits and allowances, such as food and drink. It was felt that the labourers now had more power because they were the people in demand, a situation not exactly to the landlords' liking. The Ordinance of Labourers was issued by parliament, largely in response to this in June 1349. The chroniclers at the time recorded some of this feeling towards the agricultural workers. Gower complained that "they are sluggish, they are scarce, and they are grasping. For the very little they do they demand the highest pay". (Hatcher, Past and Present, pp17).

As a result of depopulation, the nature of farming in some areas changed. In middle England, there was a move away from arable to pastoral farming which was less labour intensive. Lords leased out their land because rents had fallen and land that had been left was taken up and used to meet costs. Consequently, many labourers enjoyed higher standards of living and lords enjoyed greater profits, despite higher costs.

It is not clear exactly how prosperous towns were at this time. There was great regional diversity, but in the late 14th century, they were still attracting migrants from the countryside, suggesting there was work for people. Luxury trades continued to do well and the cloth industry also prospered.

In his article in Ormord and Lindley's 'The Black Death in England', Bolton focuses on the following four groupings. The effect of the Black Death on the economic standings of these four groups can be used to see how the economic and social structures of England had been changed.


The short era of apparent prosperity did not last. The population failed to reproduce itself in conditions that were, in fact, conducive to an incease in the population. Generally it appears that the medieval economy had been changed by the Black Death and depopulation. Overall, in the short term, there was prosperity and a rise in the standard of living. However, in the long term, villeinage remained, poverty remained and prices gradually began to fall again by the mid 15th century. This was because of a fall in demand. War also had an effect on the slowing down of the economy, along with a shortage of money in circulation. Despite no long term prosperity, the plague had fundamentally changed the English economy. English society had been permanently altered, through loss of population and through a changing economic background.