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A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex, 1350-1525.

A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525, by L.R. Poos. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991. xiv, 330 pp. $59.50 U.S.

With a high proportion of wage earners, a modest industrial sector driven partly by export demand, no open field system and, at least in its southern hundreds, much influenced by London, Essex was hardly typical of England in the later middle ages. But L.R. Poos's examination of Essex after the Black Death is of the utmost importance for every student of medieval and early modern England, for he shows the most of the social characteristics discerned in the sixteenth century were also present there in the fifteenth (and some even before the Black Death), and exposes some of the fallacies in current generalizations about post-plague England.

Professor Poos concentrates on the densley-populated northern and central hundreds of the county, an area of smallholders (nearly 60 per cent of tenancies were of five acres or less) and landless. There, according to the Poll Tax returns, over half the heads of households were labourers, with little or no land, and so dependent on earning wages and buying food in Essex's many markets. Among these labourers, even in the late fifteenth century, illiteracy was universal. More surprisingly, this was true also of the craftsmen and retailers, who together comprised about a quarter of the heads of households. Even among the agriculturalists -- including the free tenants and firmarii, as well as the nativi tenentes and husbandmen -N some 85 per cent seem to have been totally illiterate. This makes Poos question Hudson's theory that the higher level of Lollardy in fifteenth-century Essex resulted from the dissemination of doctrinal texts and arguments, as well as the much higher estimates of lay literacy made by Moran, du Boulay, and others.

Poos published earlier his calculations of the Essex population in the later middle ages, concluding that there had been severe mortality during the agrarian crisis of 1315-17 and the Black Death, then another decline, and stagnation thereafter; at the beginning of the sixteenth century the local population was "well under one-half the level it had achieved two centuries earlier" (Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd ser., XXXVIII, 1985, p. 529). In this present book he examines the "remarkable stable equilibrium" of the fifteenth century. He argues convincingly that this stability resulted not only from the recurrences of plague but also from lower fertility, as most men married late or not at all. Agriculturalists seem more likely to marry, and marry at a relatively early age, than craftsmen or retailers, and much more likely to do both than were labourers. Poos finds no evidence that parents tried to breed faster to make good the losses from plague. Medieval social historians are wrong, he affirms, to see land settlement as a major incentive for arranged marriages, for "only a minority of rural marriages in Essex . . . entailed significant settlements of landed property" (p. 141).

In the communities Poos studied, mobility was high: one quarter of the residents were likely to migrate elsewhere in the course of a ten-year period. As one would expect, agriculturalists were the most stable, and labourers the least. This was true not only of casual labourers with their own households, but also of the servants hired by the year, who were almost always young, resident and (despite Barbara Hanawalt's observation for neighbouring Suffolk) unmarried. The book includes a useful summary of the Peasants' Revolt and other uprisings in Essex, and notes the prominence in them of men who had been officials of towns or manors; Poos accepts the probability that some "co-ordinated network of contacts" (p. 239) facilitated the 1381 revolt.

This study is based on careful calculations from every imaginable source, including records of tithingmen, the diocese of London's consistory court and, for one parish, the entries for the churching of women after child-birth, as well as the more obvious manorial accounts and Poll Tax returns. There are, indeed, some risks inherent in using data from different sources and different dates, but Poos is so restrained and cautious in his conclusions and criticisms that it is hard to disagree with them. His statistics, though voluminous, are user-friendly; the only chapters that may cause problems for the averagely-innumerate historian are those on population trends.

A few quibbles come to mind. In discussing the stipends of the famuli, Poos does not put a cash value on the grain deliveries they received; these deliveries were worth much more than what they were paid in money (though, in the fifteenth century, with the cash element rising and grain prices falling, the gap narrowed). Figure 2.4 (p. 50) shows most cash rents for arable land higher in the mid-fifteenth century than at the end of the fourteenth century; it makes the observation that "the price of land fell more, proportionately, than the price of grain" (p.5) somewhat unpersuasive. It is hardly surprising that the number of man-days that carpenters and labourers were hired on the Westminister abbey manor of Bridbrook fell sharply between the last quarter of the fourteenth century and the second quarter of the fifteenth (p. 212), as the manor was leased out in 1405. There is a miscalculation on page 68: quatuor marcas sterlingorum amount to 2 [Pounds]. 13s. 4d., not 2 [Pounds] 6s. 8d. This reviewer is inclined to give more credit to the Statute of Labour than Poos does, for restraining wages after the Black Death, but is impressed by his calculation that nearly a quarter of all Essex males older than their mid-teens were fined in 1352 for violating the Statute, and, as he notes, "the proportion of all male labourers would thus have been even higher" (p. 241).

A Rural Society After the Black Death was being printed by the Cambridge University Press at the same time as the much-delayed Agrarian History of England and Wales, 1350-1500. As one of the contributors to the latter, this reviewer wishes fervently that Poos's book had been available when he wrote his chapters for it. It is possible that Poos in turn would have found it easier to make comparisons with other regions in England had teh Agrarian History appeared more promptly. This does not imply, however, any shortcoming whatsoever in this invaluable new monograph; one laments only that the lack of archival material makes it impossible to replicate it adequately for other English counties.
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Author:Farmer, D.L.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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