Black Death and Land Management

The pestilance which raged through England in 1348-9, killing between 1/3 and 1/2 of the population totally changed the balance of power in the country. The result ign shortage of manpower meant that rental values collapsed, and many properties were empty. Ancient communities had been based on land in return for duties , but was no longer workable. From 1350, labourers found themselves in a supplier’s market so notions of compulsory labour for the lord were largely unenforceable. the new system of ‘copyhold’ became the means of people occupying properties. This became an intriguing social experiment that lasted about 200 years in English villages. It was a transition between feudalism and the oppressive control of landlords in the 19th century, where the owners of the land did not work it, most of the work being done by underpaid labourers, as described by Cobbett and others. As Adam Nicholson describes in ‘Arcadia’ :

‘The copyhold system was, of course both good and bad. The tenancy was usually given for 3 lives, sometimes to a man, his wife and a son; a man, his sister and her husband; a man and two sons; or a widow, her son and daughter. It gave security to the farmers and allowed them to invest in improvement which a short lease could not allow. Land and buildings were only rarely let to single individuals; the agreement for 3 lives… meant that its terms would extend to whichever of these was the last to die No one, in other words, would be ejected from their hoe and farm on the death of a husband or a father. Copyhold agreements for 3 lives meant that the maintenance of this social fabric was built into the economic structure of the place.

But its conservativism was also a brake. the entire system was presided over by the memory of how things had always been done Wisdom was essentially proverbial;what was known was good; what was strange was bad. Anything inherited was to be held on to; anything innovatory to be looked at with suspicion. the real story of this ancient form of life was not freedom but imposition, the restrictions on the individual which the workings of the community required. No modern surveillance society could match the reality of a chalkland village in which work patterns, sexual habits, the ability to sell and trade, forms of inheritance and friendship were all closely supervised, not by the distant lord of the manor but by other villages themselves. …”Whether and where you could collect sticks for firewood, the thickness of the hedge around your garden, the suitability of your chimney for fires, the state of your roof, the dirtiness of the path up to your door, the ringlessness of your pigs’ noses, the size of your back room, the clothes you wore, the wya you talked in public, the amount you could drink, your behaviour in church; on every conceivable issue, the village could police the habits and transgressions of its inhabitants., and having ‘presented” the offenders could sentence and punish them. Village stocks and ducking stools were both the symbols and instruments of control.
Control of land was the tightest of all.


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