The Black Death in Walsham, England, resulted in a situation where there was lots of land and not enough people to work it. This meant that, for the first time in centuries, a peasant could decide to head down the road to another estate and ask for higher wages if he/she didn’t like the compensation offered at a particular manor.
Running a Manor Was Never So Complicated
In normal times, after the death of a tenant, that tenant’s heir would have the right to step forward and claim the tenancy or negotiate with the lord—maybe giving it up for a sum of money, or claiming it and then renting it out to someone else who could work it.
Now, if it so happened that no heir was to be found, the situation could usually be managed—a vacant tenancy here and there was actually kind of desirable, as that land could be reassigned or rented out, and this would help ease the land crunch, at least a little bit. But in the aftermath of the plague, in June of 1349, the supply and demand graph at Walsham was turned upside down.
In his book, John Hatcher paints a vivid picture of what must have happened at one of the manor court meetings. The surviving tenants would have most likely gathered together. Just three months before, they had met to conduct the usual business of the estate.
Manor officials like the reeve, the clerk of the court, the manor steward, and others who filled administrative roles would usually oversee the court business and deal with matters, both legal and economic. But on a certain day, the crowd gathered at Walsham would have noticed that most of the people they were used to seeing running these meetings were absent. And it’s because they were dead.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Imagining the Aftermath of the Plague
We can imagine that the people gathered there were relieved to see at least one familiar face in the room—the steward, John Blakey. So, the next step was to read out the roll of those who had died. The family of that person would be expected to identify what they planned to offer as the heriot, or death tax, to the estate. In most instances, this came in the form of the family’s best beast.
Afterward, there was the matter of deciding who could claim a vacant tenancy, and what terms of transfer—a payment, a commitment to provide a certain number of days of service, and so forth—would be required to complete the transaction. A group of respected citizens of the manor would serve as witnesses, and a young clerk—pressed into hasty service because the old clerk had died—would also record the proceedings.
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The Reality of the Day People Met in the Court
According to the records of that day, the first of these death announcements and transfers went smoothly. But the next one did not. Adam Hardonn had his name read. No one stepped forward. Someone stated for the record that Adam had a brother, William, who should be the heir, and furthermore, William knew both about his brother’s death and had been aware that the court was scheduled to convene that day.
But William had not shown up. Maybe William was thinking, “Travel to a plague-infested village? No, thank you.” The court decreed that William was to be tracked down and compelled to take over his brother’s holding and pay all the taxes that were due. And after that piece of official business, the process really did not go smoothly at all.
As each name of the dead was read aloud, the assembled group would probably have turned collectively to look for the heir to the dead man to step forward. After all, on a manor of this size, everyone probably knew everyone else’s business and relations. But even as they turned to look, they might have all realized, “Oh, wait, he’s dead, too.”
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People of Walsham and the Aftermath of the Black Death
Records reveal that in 1353 there was a huge pushback from the peasant population at Walsham. At harvest time, 14 tenants refused to perform their required days of labor on the manor’s fields. An additional 34 tenants refused to perform the post-harvest activity necessary to get the fields and farming equipment ready for the winter, and 10 people—all of them women—refused to perform their usual assigned duty of winnowing the grains.
What’s more, it seems clear that many of the tenants left the manor and relocated, and when ordered back according to law, they refused to return. What’s really interesting here is that, compared to many other places, these acts of defiance against the lords of Walsham and the seizing of opportunities for economic and social advancement didn’t happen until relatively late.
It was a new world, and the old standards, practices, conventions and loyalties had fallen by the wayside. Society had been transformed (beginnings of the medieval world starting its transition into the early modern era).
Common Questions about the Effects of the Black Death on England’s Walsham Manor
Besides knowing who inherits their belongings, the court also wanted someone to be responsible for the days of labor the previous deceased tenant owed to the lord of the land. Of course, the effects of the Black Death were felt in this regard, too, because most of the time nobody responsible for labor could be found.
There happened to be a land crunch so it wouldn’t be that bad to not find the heir to a tenant. The land would be rented or redistributed by the court. But one of the effects of the Black Death was that too many tenants didn’t have an heir and this caused a problem.
One of the effects of the Black Plague was that in its aftermath, many peasants refused to labor tirelessly like in the past. Even though they were required by law, many left their responsibilities altogether.