When asked to name a major pandemic in history that isn’t COVID-19, the first words out of people’s mouths are usually “The Black Plague” or “The Black Death.” That’s fair enough. Historically, there are few pandemics that can match the Black Plague in terms of not only losses of human life during its peak, but complete social and economic upheaval in its wake.
In England alone, the pestilence succeeded in wiping out an estimated 40% of the population, a merciless killing spree that reached its heights from the summer of 1348 to the spring of 1350. Noted historian Dr. Mike Ibeji acknowledges in his BBC article “Black Death” that the circumstances of English society at the time made it an ideal country for such a deadly and contagious disease to spread like wildfire. The Black Plague, as he accurately summarizes it, “was to flourish in these conditions.”
Medieval England was a largely agricultural nation, populated mainly by peasant-laborers who worked the fields and operated the farms as close-knit communities. Working and living apart, as well as sanitary sewage systems and access to health care, were luxuries enjoyed only by the upper classes, meaning the landed gentry, the nobility, and the royal family. As expected, the Black Plague disproportionately infected and annihilated the working people, resulting in a labor shortage that would have long-term effects not only on England’s social and economic stability, but the strength of its governing power as well.
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A labor shortage always offers some bargaining power to the disadvantaged masses. The population decrease following the Black Death was no exception. After the plague had passed, working-class survivors threw down their tools and demanded more rights. This led to a massive pushback by the English parliament, under King Edward III, that came in the form of the Statute of Labourers Act in 1351.
This new law forced all able-bodied laborers to accept a frozen, non-negotiable wage, decided on by those who paid out the wages. Those who still refused to work were susceptible to physical punishment or heavy fines by their local lords and magistrates. Many who attempted to pack up and travel away from their villages in search of better-paying work were caught and dragged back home against their will. These nightmarish, authoritarian conditions set the stage for the next generation’s outrage. In 1381, 30 years after the act was passed, rebellion broke out in England.
Lighting the spark of this notorious revolt was the introduction of a widely despised poll tax in the same year. A poll tax, being a fixed sum with no regard for an individual’s personal income, was (naturally) not well-received by a struggling population already forced to accept low fixed wages under the previous king, Edward III. Though Edward’s grandson Richard II now reigned, he was not wholly blamed for this unpopular new tax. He was young and easily manipulated by his corrupt advisors, in particular his acting regent—his uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
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In the spring of 1381, archdeacon and court official John Brampton was driven out of the Essex town of Brentwood after attempting to collect unpaid dues. Over the course of the following month, rebels from Kent, Suffolk, and Essex swarmed together, and among them, two leaders emerged: Wat Tyler, and John Ball, a radical priest who preached against the greed of Richard II’s court.
Little is known about Wat Tyler’s origins, but it has been speculated that he may have been a soldier, considering how well he was able to organize the masses and lead the charge. He led an angry mob to London in June 1381, and they attacked on the 13th. At the time, the king’s army was stationed in Scotland, fighting a war.
The rebels faced little opposition, and were determined to enforce change. Their demands would not be considered unreasonable by today’s standards. Many of their gripes resembled injustices against which modern-day workers’ unions and workers’ rights organizations fight today: stagnated wages that haven't kept up with the price of living, taxes targeted specifically at the working classes, and unequal distribution of wealth and resources.
The peasants of 1381 were also resentful of the long-term abuses of power by local landlords and wanted the practice of serfdom abolished. Under serfdom, a farmer working a stretch of land was considered the lord’s property just as much as the land was. It was essentially slavery under a different name; medieval lords were known to sell their serfs with a strip of land but could not sell or trade them as individuals. It was the Middle Age equivalent of a “package deal.”
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Individually, a serf had no power, but as a mass, they were a force of nature capable of shaking the dust of their own nation, specifically by marching and laying siege to London. During the revolt, the Duke of Lancaster’s home, the Savoy Palace, was ransacked and destroyed. The mob also succeeded in capturing and beheading two of the king’s most powerful and in-favor advisors: Archbishop and Chancellor Simon Sudbury, and Robert Hales, the High Treasurer, both of whom were largely responsible for the introduction of the poll tax.
Xenophobia also played a part in the rebels’ ire, and this led them to broaden their attack from the government officials who oppressed them to Flemish immigrants. A Flemish community had been thriving in London ever since merchants had set up shop around the time of Edward III’s marriage to Phillipa of Hainault (new trade deals were part of their wedding negotiations). To these oppressed and downtrodden workers of England, foreigners amassing wealth and setting down roots in their country was downright insulting, and they retaliated with violence.
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The rebellion was put to a swift end with two overwhelmingly medieval tactics: execution, and false promises made by the king. On June 15, 1381, 14-year-old Richard II met the rebel army in Smithfield outside of London, to hear their grievances. There, Wat Tyler was killed by the furious Mayor of London, William Walworth. Richard, a notoriously weak-willed king, would not see through the social and political reforms he offered to the masses in exchange for their disbanding. As a further show of the crown’s power, John Ball was captured, hanged, and dismembered following a trial. Overall, spurred on by social unrest in the wake of the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 really only succeeded in ending the poll tax.
Centuries later, the COVID-19 pandemic was able to flourish among essential workers employed in industries where social distancing is nearly impossible. Now, some employers are struggling to entice the remaining population back to work, as unemployment benefits can pay more than a full-time low-wage job, and without the risk of exposure to a life-threatening illness. With another labor shortage following a pandemic, it remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be.