The Fall of the Feudal System
The feudal system was already beginning to change before the Black Death, with more peasants becoming freemen, renting land from their lords and being paid in cash for work instead of being tied by the obligations of serfdom. These freemen remained bound to their villages by family ties and their sense of duty. The plague destroyed this. Families were decimated, and duty vanished. There was plenty of work- but not enough workers. So free peasants were free to negotiate better terms with their Lords, demanding higher wages or lower rent. If their current Lord refused, they could simply move on to one who would agree.
Serfs applied the same tactic. They were tied to the land; however, the labor shortage also gave them more bargaining power. More and more of tied laborers began to negotiate better terms of living. They demanded the same rights as freedmen in return for their labor and if their Lords refused, they ran away. Some left for the towns where, if they could survive uncaught for a year, the law would grant them their freedom. However, others just moved onto other manors where in return for their labour, they were accepted as free workers, with no questions asked.
Landlords had little choice but to pay the wage increases and in some areas payments doubled. Across Europe, serfdom began to disappear. In Italy and France, obligations were imposed upon the Lords who were now obliged to supply their peasants with not only land to farm but also the tools and seeds to do so. By the sixteenth century, it was common for peasants to pay their Lords a fixed rent after which the rest of the profits of their farms were their own. Peasants were also now free to dispose of their own property. It was now possible for peasants to become prosperous- even wealthy.
Alarmed by the growth of a socially mobile peasantry, the nobility began to try and reassert some control. In eastern Europe, serfdom reappeared as laws were made to force serfs to remain on their Lord’s land. In England, a series of laws were passed to try and keep the peasants in their place. Prices of goods were fixed to limit peasant’s profits, and in 1351 the Statute of Laborers was imposed, restricting wages to the levels of 1346. However, these measures were not working as in 1363; ruling bodies passed Sumptuary Laws which regulated the kinds of clothes and materials that different classes could wear to stop prosperous peasants from dressing as nobles.
However, the lower classes were not going to relinquish their newfound freedom without a fight. In 1381, what became known as the Peasants Revolt broke out. Under the leadership of a peasant called Wat Tyler, a group of rebels from Kent and Essex marched on London in June 1381. Once there, they demanded the King recognized their rights, beheading the King’s Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury just to prove they were in earnest. Ultimately, the King’s forces quashed the revolt and the leaders executed. However, the Peasant’s Revolt showed that there was no going back to the old social order. The execution of an Archbishop also signaled another worrying change- this time to the position of the church and religion.