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Catastrophic contributions to modernity

"Catastrophic contributions to modernity" Continued...

As a result of the financial and legal gains made by medieval workers, the financial circumstances of the elite declined substantially. With many fewer mouths to feed, prices for agricultural products declined, which reduced landowners’ incomes. As the distinguished A. R. Bridbury put it, “Members of the landed classes … were outstandingly the casualties of the movements of these momentous times.” Consequently, all across western Europe the aristocratic landowners attempted to prohibit higher wages by law. In France a 1349 statute limited wages to pre-1348 levels. It was ignored. So in 1350 a new statute limited wage increases to 33 percent above the 1348 level. In England, an Ordinance of Labour in 1349 froze wages. Then in 1350 Parliament enacted a statute that attempted the same thing. But the market overruled them. “All of these efforts were for naught,” the historian Robert S. Gottfried wrote, “and landlords discovered that the only way to keep laborers was to pay the going rate.”

Nevertheless, tensions between the peasants, who demanded greater freedom, and the aristocracy, who wanted a return to unchallenged serfdom, led to several peasant revolts—the Jacquerie in France in 1358, the Revolt of the Ciompi in Italy in 1378, and the English Peasants’ Revolt (or Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) in 1381. All these revolts were ruthlessly suppressed. But their goals were largely achieved by economic forces. As the historian Jim Bolton aptly put it: “Change came, almost inexorably, and it did so because the economic events of the last quarter of the fourteenth century, and especially those resulting from the sudden decline in population, gave peasant tenants an irresistible bargaining position. By the late 1380s, [aristocratic efforts to restore serfdom] had largely failed, in the face of tenant resistance and economic realism.”

Rodney Stark
Rodney Stark

Rodney is a distinguished professor of the social sciences and co-director of the Institue for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

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