The Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England; from bondage to freedom.


Mark Bailey is High Master at St Paul's School and Professor of Later Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. He is a prolific author of economic and social history of the late medieval period.

It might be useful here to define what is meant by serfdom, villeinage etc.. It was not slavery as practised in the sugar plantations of the West Indies or the cotton plantations of the antebellum South of USA. It was more in line with share cropping a system that was popular in post Civil War USA. Share cropping involves landlords letting out parts of their land to tenants, in exchange for a share of the crop. Villeinage was much the same. only instead of a share of the crop the tenant was required to do so much work for the lord usually on the lord's demesne. While both systems carried additional burdens, villeinage was much more restrictive. The tenant would be liable for an entry fee plus certain 'fines' such as Chevage, Merchet etc. Moreover to the tenants chagrin the language used in the agreement left no one in any doubt that the tenant was a serf. In addition to all of this the serf could only defend his suit in the manorial court, not in the Royal Court of Common Law which was available to freemen.

Bailey divides his book into three sections to wit:-Part 1-The Decline of Serfdom: Questions and Approaches; Part 2-Case Studies; Part 3- Conclusions.

Part 1 has something of a bibliographic essay about it as Bailey examines both 'the decline' and other historians thoughts, methods and conclusions. It also explains clearly and concisely just what serfdom was and how it declined in the 14th and 15th centuries. Bailey wonders why the decline of serfdom has received either little or only fragmented attention for historians, especially over the last two decades. This is in spite of the significance of the decline in the history of England over many centuries from 1200, it saw the transition from a bonded to a free society. What work has been done has tended to concentrate on individual or small groups of manors and/or in one particular area of the country.

The period from early fourteenth century to the middle of the fifteen century was a period of great change in England. 1315 to 1318 were years of great famine with an estimated 15 per cent of the 5 million strong population dying. An outbreak, in the first half of the fourteenth century, of Rinderpest, a disease which infects sheep and cattle further affected agriculture, as oxen more than horses were used for ploughing. Then in 1348 -1349 came the biggest scourge of all, the Black Death. This pestilence saw the deaths of some one and a quarter million people, roughly 30 to 40 percent of the population. In some areas it was more. Further outbreaks in the second half of the century accounted for a few more. It would not be until the latter half of the sixteenth century that the population recovered to its numbers in 1200. It also changed the balance of rural to urban residence. It was not a case of too many people living in the countryside for in some places there were too few. Bailey notes all this and investigates the effect it might have had on the price of land, wages and goods. One thing he did not comment on, which I thought he might, was the changing nature of land use. Bruce Campbell notes that pre Black Death the land use was split roughly equally between arable and pasture land afterwards the ratio had changed from 1:1 to 1:2. This 'pasture land' did not including the fields left fallow in crop rotation. This must surely have had some effect on the amount of week work demanded of the tenant by the lord, pasture land is less labour intensive than arable. It also saw a great rise in the incidence of sheep farming, English wool either as fleece or cloth was much prized by continental traders. Witness the fact that the great land owning monasteries, especially the Cistercians, were at the forefront of wool production

Part 2 The Case Studies. With regard to the scope of any investigation Bailey stressed that it must be broader in scope. It should encompass differing areas and size always supposing, of course, extant records are available. It would be fatuous to suppose that what causes precipitated what events on one landlord's manor, of one size, in one area would therefore apply to all sized manors of all landlords in all areas. Although in the past some historians seemed to have assumed just that. Bailey started his investigation using three assumptions. First the key characteristics of villeinage on the eve of the black death must be clearly defined if any subsequent change is to be noted. Second the chronology of any change(decline) must be plotted as precisely as the sources will allow. Third the manors used must be representative of the different types to be found in England and must come from different areas. Bailey also realise that there could be outliers, manors that for some unknown, unexplained reason did not fit the norm. To this end Bailey chose, in all, 38 manors from two geographical areas, East Anglia where villeinage was not especially prominent in c1300 and Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire where it was. He split his sample into two categories. Category A containing 15 manors were those with the best archival documents, while category B (23 manors) were the rest.

Analysis from category A which was further sub-divided into six separate case studies,which were closely studied and argued covering everything to do with villeinage. Bailey notes the incidents of villeinage, the week work requirement, the harvest work requirement, the language used in documents and the frequency and level of the various 'fines'. Here I have a quibble with Bailey. He notes in detail individual fines e.g. talking of Merchet a fine payable on marriage,“The average fine was high by East Anglian standards (mean= 7s 6d in the period 1325-48). The problem for me was what was 7s 6d equivalent to in today's money? He doesn't say. It appears that £1 (20s or 240d) in 1350 was worth at least £722 in 2015. This is simple retail price index, other calculations such as labour value it is worth even more. In c 1400 a labourer would have earned 4d a day and a stonemason 7d, 10 eggs would cost 6d and 10 candles 1d . Bailey's remaining 23 manors, category B were sub-divided into four sub grouping. Type 1 those evolving hereditary tenure. Type 2 those with a combination of hereditary tenures and leases. Type 3 tenure for the term of life or lives. Type 4 those with leases. The same tight, strict statistical analysis was applied to these manors as had been applied to the category A manors.

Part 3 The conclusions. Bailey presents his conclusions in a strict well drawn manner. He notes the change in servile work demanded by the lord, the change in frequency and level of 'fines' and servile work. He also notes the change in language used on manorial court documents with the terms such as 'in bondage' or 'in villeinage' falling away, there is nothing so demeaning as to have your status noted down. Bailey also emphasises the falling price of land some serfs became fairly wealthy owning multiple tenancies. Of course the route from bondage to freedom was not a straight road there were always hold-ups often when a new lord took over the manor or when they ran a bit short of money. These hiccups apart it was a momentous journey both for the peasants of late Medieval England and for future generations. Here it is explained in great detail and with great skill.

Professor Bailey has presented a work of great scholarship. One that will stand as the seminal work for those future scholars who wish to study one of, perhaps the, most important chapters in the history of English society.

Don Vincent
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