Response to the Plague in Cities and in the Countryside


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

In the aftermath of the spread of the plague in cities and countryside life, so many had died that livestock and farmland went untended. Livestock reportedly roamed freely, with no one to feed or milk them. In fact, there was such a surplus of livestock that lords of various manor estates in England had turned down the heriot or death tax.

An image of a flock of sheep moving on a hillside.
The death tax made sure that the lord of the manor was compensated for his loss. (Image: Evgeny Haritonov/Shutterstock)

When the head of a peasant household died, his family was supposed to pay a tax of their best beast to the lord on whose manor they lived and worked. Since the strongest, most able-bodied member of the family was now gone, the best beast was a payment made to cover the decline in labor and production. 

As you can imagine, in 1349 the particular peasant family in this situation had any number of beasts to choose from—from their own herd, from those of their relatives who had passed away and willed them to them, and from those that belonged to their neighbors who had died without heirs and that were simply free for the taking. 

Now, the lord usually had no need for yet another animal to take care of and so decided, rather graciously, to forgo the heriot. The thing is; the animal would also be a problem for the family as they probably had their hands full as well. And because the livestock market was suddenly flooded with available animals, the prices of these animals plummeted almost overnight. It was definitely a buyer’s market, but nobody really wanted or needed to buy.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Peasants and Their Ambitions

An image of Old Saint Paul’s "A Tale of the Plague and the Fire".
Since the cities were mostly deserted, some peasants saw an opening toward building a better life. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

And it wasn’t just the mortality caused by the plague that led to untended fields and roaming livestock. Peasants who had once resigned themselves to a lifetime of scratching out a subsistence living, working their own fields and those of their lord, suddenly saw an opportunity for a better life perhaps in the cities, which were in many cases almost empty. 

You might think that this would mean these new arrivals from the countryside would be welcome, but while that’s partially true, in many instances, newcomers placed yet an additional strain on the civic coffers. They couldn’t just move into the empty houses. 

In a society that was structured hierarchically in terms of relationships of service, dependence, loyalty, and protection, new strategies needed to be developed to cope with the sudden appearance of groups of people who could and did move throughout the countryside wherever they liked. Such groups were in need of some sort of regulation.

Learn more about the communities that survived the first wave.

The High Costs of Labor

But laborers in the countryside didn’t only head to the cities. In many instances, they headed just down the road to the next manor or landholder’s property that needed working. And because the fields were in danger of not being plowed, or sown, or harvested, which could have meant starvation for a large portion of the population that had survived, many landowners found themselves willing or needing to pay cash wages for able bodies who were willing to work. 

Prior to this, especially in England, a serf was tied to his lord’s land and received protection and a portion of the harvest in return for his labor. Now, he could go down the road to the next farm and demand cash wages—and high ones, too—from the lord who was desperate for someone to cultivate his crops and harvest them. 

This was still not enough, though, to prevent the prices of grain and produce from increasing sharply in the two decades after the first outbreak of the Black Death, even as the prices of livestock plummeted. Even though there was more than enough to go around, some people still suffered some serious privation in the immediate aftermath of the Great Mortality’s arrival.

Learn more about later plague outbreaks: 1353-1666.

The Impact in the Cities

In some places where the plague hit especially hard, the citizens of a town that had been reduced to less than half its size in population might have decided that there was no point in staying put. Rather, it would be better to pull up stakes and move to another community, one that had space because so many of its citizens had passed away. 

Thus, many smaller towns and cities were abandoned altogether, and the population began to concentrate in clusters. This hadn’t been possible in the early 1340s because the population of Europe had gotten so large—doubling from 75 million in the year 1000 to about 150 million in 1300—there had been a serious land crunch once that population increase was fully in place. 

But now, after the Black Death, there was plenty of land to be had by those who wanted it, and more and more land was opening up. Throughout the medieval world, but particularly in the Tuscan countryside, this trend was advanced by the practice of many urban merchants who saw a chance to become landowners. They bought up large parcels of land, joining together this piece and that piece for low prices. 

They then actively sought out laborers to work the land, establishing mezzadriaor formal sharecropping practices—that were quite favorable to the laborers, many of whom had been barely eking out a subsistence living until this time. A few urban merchants became importers of grain from the countryside in addition to whatever their primary trade had been, and the farmers essentially became exporters of grain, which meant that they were also making money in trade.

A new social and economic order was definitely on the rise in Europe.

Common Questions about Response to the Plague in Cities and in the Countryside

Q: What was the meaning of death tax in medieval times?

When the head of a household died in medieval times, it meant that the lord of the manor they worked on had to be compensated for losing an important part of his workforce. Hence, families would give up their best animal as death tax to the lord of the manor.

Q: How did the plague economically help some laborers who survived it?

In the immediate aftermath of the plague, the desperate landowners in the countryside hired the idle laborers on high wages for cultivating their crops and harvesting them.

Q: What did the urban merchants do in the Tuscan countryside after the plague?

After the plague ravaged many villages, the urban merchants particularly in the Tuscan countryside bought up large parcels of land, joining together this piece and that piece for low prices.

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