Source Problems in English History


World History


An Aspect of the Agricultural Labor Problem in the Fourteenth Century

An Aspect of the Agricultural Labor Problem in the Fourteenth Century


BELOW knight and freeholder was the villein, the typical member of the English peasant class. In the half or three-quarters of a century following the Norman Conquest, and largely as a result of it, rightlessness of the thoroughgoing personal sort and most of the forms of household slavery came to an end. But predial serfdom remained. This means the serfdom related to land tenure. The villein was not free to leave his land, and his payments to the lord were from the land or in the form of service on the lord’s demesne land. The freeholder made such payments also, but they were less burdensome in his case, were more fixed in quantity and in time and manner of payment. The villein, notwithstanding the protection which accrued to him from the restraint of manorial custom and precedent, was always more or less at his lord’s disposal. But the most striking trait of English villeinage and that which looked straight toward freedom was its relative character. The villein was free toward all but his lord. And when the king, through his itinerant justices, his sheriffs, and his other means of local interference, began to touch the localities with his centralizing power and methods, and the great system of king’s courts began to grow, he was generally disposed to look at the villein on the free side. Here also the sworn inquest played no small part of its mighty rôle in the history of democracy. Villeins were placed on juries whenever the king sought information which they could best furnish; and, although they were not associated with those above them as the freeholder was associated with the knight, yet jury service often occasioned strange approximations of high and low, and it must be remembered that those great, complex grand juries of the hundred, which presented criminals, while not acting as a unit, did regularly contain knights or freeholders, and villeins. But the basic causes of the passing of villeinage must be sought in changing economic conditions. The central government’s treatment of the villein was a contributory cause.

The villeins were the chief element on the manor, and the manor was, after the Norman Conquest as for long before, the economic unit. Its grand foundational idea was that its lord owned the land, a liberal portion of which was his demesne cultivated directly for him, while the rest was held by tenants who paid for its use by working on the demesne and by making payments in money or kind. The manor was economically self-sufficient. Salt and iron were the only important things regularly obtained outside. The typical manor contained some freeholders, many villeins, whose tenure was normally the virgate of thirty acres, and often some more or less negligible remnants of ancient classes or sub-classes farther down in the economic and social scale. Money was not extensively used in rural England in the early Middle Ages. Some money transactions there were: the bailiffs sold some produce at the markets, and the manor’s salt and iron were bought with money; the freeholders’ rents were often paid wholly or partly in money, and even the villeins occasionally had money dealings with their lords. But the early medieval rule was land in exchange for labor, and labor (or the land’s products) in exchange for land. As long as this held even approximately, labor would not be migratory. A villein thought long before he left even a very hard lot, because his chances of finding another holding open to him—normally the only thing he could get for his labor—were slender. He did sometimes find safe harborage in the towns, and that with growing frequency during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and in this way the slowly increasing population, but slightly provided for by subdivided holdings and the cultivation of new lands, found vent. But in general the fugitive villein ran great chances of becoming a vagabond, often a criminal, and the medieval vagabond was subject to the worst suspicions and to harsh treatment. So villeins lived generation after generation on the same bit of land, in the same poor dwelling, fulfilling the custom of the manor in rent and "works,"1 custom that had formed and hardened through infinitesimal accretions from a forgotten past until, in endless stagnation and inbreeding, it had reached a local, self-important pettiness and deadness to new influences that are beyond belief.

The chief agent in wrenching the manor from its past, and in mobilizing its elements, was money as a medium of exchange, the advent of the money economy; and this advent, like so many other things new and wonderful in the Middle Ages, is largely to be identified with the thirteenth century. The long peace since the Norman Conquest and the closer relations with France and Flanders had done their work in building up trade and industry. Trade and industry brought money to the ports and the larger inland towns; and from these it passed down rather promptly into the manorial relations. Indeed, it is now recognized that past writers have assumed a greater difference between urban and rural communities in the matter of a money economy than really existed.1 As soon as lords and villeins could, on any considerable scale, market their surplus produce for cash, there was introduced a factor into the rural economy which worked in several reciprocal directions. The lord began to have a supply of money with which he could hire labor, assuming there was labor to be hired; that is, assuming a free and floating laboring class; and this same source of cash made it possible for thrifty villeins to buy themselves free and create such a class. Also the villeins, whether or not on the road to manumission, increasingly "bought their works,"2 and thereby augmented at once the lord’s need of labor and his means of hiring it. And besides transient labor, often before there was much of it, many manors had several permanent hired laborers (ploughmen and carters, for instance) who might, indeed, be serfs as well as freemen.3 But, speaking broadly, hired labor meant free labor, and to change a labor rent into a money rent was to make labor free. The leaven was working in the English peasantry and perfectly natural processes were inaugurating the next great change. The Norman Conquest set in operation forces which ended slavery. These later causes undermined the characteristic villeinage of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a new state of society was brought forth and there were very serious new problems.


1. Cartularium Monasterii de Ramseia.

This Cartulary of Ramsey Abbey was, as the word Cartulary indicates, the record-book of the abbey. It "contains charters, inquisitions, manorial extents,1 surveys of knights’ fees, final concords, pleas in royal courts, etc., A.D. 974–1436." The excerpt here printed is from the inquest made in 1252 concerning the abbey’s manors of Upwood and Great Raveley. In this inquest the traditional manorial group of four men and the reeve was put on oath and made to tell all it knew of the abbey’s lands and tenants in the manor. We read of the manor’s chapel, its vicar and his revenues, a detailed enumeration of the abbey’s demesne in Upwood; a summary of the lands outside the demesne; an account of the freeholders’ tenures and services, followed by those of the regular virgate-holding villeins, of whom Nicholas (the description of whose services constitutes the present excerpt) is the type and example; and, after the virgate-holders, the various lesser holders with their fractions of virgates and corresponding services. The noted Benedictine monastery of Ramsey and its extensive lands were located in the fen country of northern Huntingdonshire.

2. The Extent of the Manor of Borley is a similar document for a much later date, based upon the sworn statements of the reeve and (in this case) five men of the manor. It is an unusually complete extent, and the excerpts here given show the services and obligations of the different classes or groups of tenants. Borley, at this time a royal manor, was located, in Essex.

3. Typical Lists of Manorial Services.

It will readily be seen that these lists are not themselves original documents. They are summaries made up by a recent writer, from bailiffs’ accounts. But being largely lists of figures and accurately compiled, they may properly be used here as source material. Bailiffs’ accounts (more technically known as compotus rolls) were usually rendered annually and contained a record of all the manorial receipts and expenditures, hence full information on commuted "works" and hired labor; also a good many other data, such as the amount of land under tillage each year, who were the manor’s officials, the regular hired laborers, etc. These accounts were rendered to the steward, who must see that the interests of the lord were safeguarded. The manors whose accounts are here summarized were all in the county of Hertford.

4 and 5. Henry Knighton, whose chronicle gives an important account of the Black Death,1 was a canon of St. Mary’s Abbey in Leicestershire. The chronicle covers from 959 to 1366. To 1336 it is largely derived from other chronicles. From that point it is approximately contemporaneous and probably original; for the years 1348 and 1349, J. R. Lumby (the editor of the Rolls Series edition) remarks that "Knighton is largely an independent authority."

The king’s writ in behalf of John de Paddebury is a typical bit of evidence on the severity of the Plague from a public document.

6 and 7. The Ordinance of Laborers—the product, as its name indicates, of king and council—was an emergency proclamation issued between parliaments. In this reign, notable for almost annual sessions, the frightful calamity of the Black Death sufficed to cause an interval during 1349 and 1350. A parliament summoned for January of the former year was prorogued to April, and then prorogued sine die, it being impossible, under the circumstances, to assemble and transact business. The first parliament after the plague met February 9, 1351, and took up the same labor problem with which the Ordinance had dealt, but after an interval which may well have served to bring out features which could not have been taken into account earlier. The result was the Statute of Laborers. These two great labor laws were looked upon as substantially co-ordinate and of equal legal sanction in all the attempts to enforce them throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Such legislation was not new in kind; the economic thought of the Middle Ages was to attempt to fix wages or prices by law whenever conditions appeared to demand it. The new things here were the unwonted scale upon which the attempt was made and the character of the enacting body. In our modern age, when the principles of laissez faire seem outworn and discussions about wage laws and regulation of the cost of living fill the air, it should be a matter of no slight interest to study this early economic legislation of England and the measures adopted to enforce it.1

8 and 9. Writ Appointing Justices of Laborers and Proceedings before the Justices of Laborers.

The Ordinance and later the Statute of Laborers created an additional, and in some ways new, administrative problem. To enforce laws so detailed and touching such a numerous class was a great task. Various rather futile experiments were tried after the Ordinance, but when the Statute was made it was necessary to attack the problem more seriously, and recourse was had to the Justice of the Peace, already earning his name of "state’s man-of-all-work." For something over a year, that is, until about the end of 1352, joint commissions for peace and for laborers were issued. These did not seem to work well; perhaps no method could have been devised that would. But there was complaint in parliament and a demand for new and different commissions with greater powers. This resulted in a seven-year experiment in issuing separate commissions to the so-called "justices of laborers," whose special function was to enforce the labor ordinance and statute, and who might or might not be in the commission of the peace. It was "a period of tentative attempts at regulation of economic matters by special commissions."1 The present appointing writ constitutes one of these commissions. After 1359 there was a reversion, for reasons not altogether clear, to the preceding method. Doubtless it was felt that there was too much duplication of local machinery, and the sentiment of the period looked toward the greatest possible unity in county administration.

However, that the experiment with justices of laborers was by no means a failure and that it had some aspects significant beyond its own time are shown in the many extant records of proceedings. The last group of documents in this problem contains examples of these proceedings and conveys some notion of the seriousness and thoroughness with which the government addressed itself to the enforcement of its first great labor laws.


1. From the thirteenth-century manorial "extent," make a list of the villein’s definite yearly obligations to his lord grouped under three heads: a, payments in kind; b, money payments; c, labor services. What ones are stated indefinitely as to the amount or time? Consider these latter with respect to the villein’s profitable cultivation of his own holding. What evidence is there that "works" were ever reckoned in terms of money or kind? What indication of cummutation of works? What evidence of servility aside from the services?

2. Compare the early fourteenth-century villein’s services with those of the thirteenth along the lines just suggested.

3. What is meant by "week-works"? What other general class of "works" do you find? In what months of the year were the greatest number of "works" due?

4. What evidence is there of the villein’s ownership of farm implements or live stock?

5. Were free tenants regularly distinguished from villeins by larger holdings?

6. What class of laborers seems to have been first regularly hired on the manors? During the period here illustrated, was or was not the use of such laborers increasing? Furnish specific evidence to support your answer.

7. How do you account for the kind of rent paid by the "molmen"?

8. What evidence is there throughout the period of a tendency to reckon produce or service in terms of money, even where there is no trace of commutation? Account for this.

9. What indications of a subdivision of virgates and the existence of smaller holdings? What was the probable cause?

10. During what part of this period does commutation of services into money appear to have been going on most rapidly? What general class of "works" was commuted first? Why? How would you account for the fact that the sum of rendered and commuted services did not always equal the number due?

11. Effect of the Black Death upon: acres sown; commutation of service; total rents of customary tenants (including labor services); number of hired laborers; holdings "in the lord’s hand"; money leases.

12. Produce all the evidence possible to show how the pestilence affected the cost of living. Is there any indication that its initial effect differed from its more permanent effect?

13. Enumerate in detail the classes or groups of men who sought to turn to their financial advantage the conditions produced by the pestilence.

14. In what dilemma was the landlord often placed through the action of laborers after the pestilence? How did the king propose to deal with landlords who broke his labor ordinance?

15. Summarize the changes or developments which had been going on upon the manor which were accelerated by the pestilence. Were there any retarded? Any new ones inaugurated?

16. What are the important differences between the Ordinance and Statute of Laborers? Did the Statute supersede the Ordinanee or supplement it? Did the justices of laborers have any authority or function beyond the content of the labor laws? Do any reasons suggest themselves for the appointing of special justices to enforce these laws?

17. What provision was made in these laws for determining a just wage and a just price? What was to be done if laborers refused to work?

18. What hint is there in the statute or elsewhere of the machinery which had been used to enforce the Ordinance? How successful had the enforcement been?

19. What provision was made against artisans refraining from exercising their crafts because of the limit set to the prices they might charge for their wares?

20. Did or did not this legislation run counter to the economic forces of the time? Produce specific evidence to support your answer.

21. In what respect are the traditional titles, Ordinance and Statute of Laborers, an insufficient index of the contents of the documents?

22. What evidence is there that laborers, in seeking higher wages, were becoming migratory? What measure was taken against this? How do you account for the exceptions made? How was day labor regarded?

23. What new method of hiring labor seems to have been instituted by the Statute? What was its purpose?

24. The Ordinance and Statute have often been looked upon as discriminatory legislation by the capitalist class against laborers. Collect all the data possible for or against this view.

25. What punishments or penalties were placed at the discretion of the justices for those who broke the Statute?

26. Does there seem to have been a vigorous attempt to enforce the labor laws? What difficulties were encountered? What form of trial was used? What impression do you get of the number prosecuted? Were the penalties which were being imposed adequately deterrent? How can the last point be proved beyond reasonable doubt?

27. What evidence is there that laborers were being regarded more in their relation to society in general and less in relation to their individual lords?

28. To just what extent is the statement that "the manor was breaking down" supported by the documents?

29. As far as the present documents justify such a generalization, was or was not the Black Death a determining force or turning-point in English economic history?

30. How would you summarize the changes through which the laboring class was passing during the period under review? Formulate what appear to you to have been the primary causes.

1 A "work" is usually understood to mean that portion of the customary labor owed by the tenant which was rendered in a single day.

1 Some significant conclusions on this and related matters have been reached by H. L. Gray in The Commutation of Villein Services in England before the Black Death. English Historical Review, XXIX (1914), pp. 625–656.

2 That is, commuted part or all of their customary labor services into a money payment. By doing this the villeins gained more time to work their own holdings profitably. Sometimes such commutations were at the lord’s initiative and for a time increased the villeins’ burden. Sickness or weather not seldom cut down the number of "works" which a villein rendered in a year, but neither sickness nor weather diminished the money payment which now represented those "works."

3 In general, team-service ceased to be performed by the villein tenants before hand-service.

1Extent and inquisition, in this connection, are different terms for the same thing. It was a sort of periodic taking account of stock on the part of the lord; detailed information was collected, usually by means of the sworn inquest, about tenants, tenures, services, and such sundry and incidental information as seemed important or interesting. Generally the steward conducted the inquest and drew up the information collected in formal shape. It was also customary to make an extent whenever the manor changed hands. It is to be distinguished from the less elaborate compotus roll and custumal, the former being the bailiff’s yearly financial statement to the lord, and the latter a record of the amount of land held by each tenant and the services.

1 It should be kept in mind that the Black Death, while worse than other plagues, was no isolated visitation. "Pestilence had appeared in 1315, 1316, and 1340, and dearth had ruled from 1308 to 1322, with the sole exceptions of the years 1311–13 and 1318–20. But the horrors of these times were thrown into the background by the Black Death, which in 1348 and 1349 devastated the country and left only about half the population living. A new outbreak of plague came in 1361–62, and the male sex and the upper classes more especially were swept off by it, though, the population being so much smaller, the absolute number of deaths was less. With it came a terrible cattle-plague, and the same was the case with the third outbreak, which lasted from 1368 to 1359. New epidemics raged in 1370 and 1381–82, again accompanied by dearth and cattle-plague; and these were followed by yet others in the last decade of the fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth."—Hasbach, A History of the English Agricultural Laborer, pp. 20–21.

The population of England was not far from two millions at the Conquest. It had increased very considerably by the beginning of Edward III.’s reign; but the Black Death and other epidemics and the wars so far cut it down that even at the Tudor accession in 1485 it was scarcely two and a half millions.

1 On this legislation of Edward III.’s reign was built the labor statute of Richard II. (1388), which has recently been spoken of as "perhaps the most important of all the enactments relating to laborers between the Black Death and the reign of Elizabeth," and "the basis of all subsequent Vagrancy and Poor Law legislation."—Bland, Englisk Economic History: Select Documents, p. 171, note 3.

1 This and the substance of the other statements here are derived from Miss Putnam’s The Justices of Laborers in the Fourteenth Century. English Historical Review, XXI, 517–538.


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Chicago: "An Aspect of the Agricultural Labor Problem in the Fourteenth Century," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 107–120. Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2019,

MLA: . "An Aspect of the Agricultural Labor Problem in the Fourteenth Century." Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 107–120. Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2019.

Harvard: , 'An Aspect of the Agricultural Labor Problem in the Fourteenth Century' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.107–120. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2019, from