The Great Mortality III – Consequences

One last post about the Great Mortality, and this time about the consequences, which were far more complex and far reaching than that a lot of people died. But it actually turned out that this already mentioned and most obvious consequence was of an advantage to those who were fortunate to survive.

The enormous amounts of people that had died left England with a shortage of labourers, which all of a sudden gaveWat_Tyler_rebels_from_ca_1470_MS_of_Froissart_Chronicles_in_BL them an upper hand. They were able to demand a higher pay in both countryside and towns, and in the years to come, the standards of living rose for the peasantry. The government tried to curb this development on three occasions, in 1349, 1351 and 1388. The side effect of this was what is known as Peasants Revolt, or Wat Tyler´s Rebellion, which was a reaction to The Statute of Labourers passed in 1351, which meant to prevent labourers taking advantage of the situation caused by the lack of workers. But, I feel I most likely will return to the Peasant´s Revolt in a later, separate, post. I will however mention that this was the only time an attacking army, such as it was, was able to break through and enter the Tower in London.

Still wages rose drastically all over the work field for the rest part of the 14th century, and it has been estimated that wages to a skilled builder rose by two thirds and that it doubled for unskilled workers.

JwycliffejmkAnother side effect of the Great Mortality that has been suggested is the development of vernacular English due to the death of many teachers proficient in French, with the rise if poets such as Chaucer and John Gower towards the end of the 14th century. What instead in some quarters dwindled was, if not the faith in God, so at least the faith in the clergy. Their explanation had of course been that the Great Mortality was a punishment from God for the moral shortcomings of ordinary people. But to their own misfortune, a great number of priests died themselves, opening up, from the medieval view on reality, for the questioning of the actual holiness of the clergy itself. This paved the way for John Wycliffe, scholastic philosopher, theologian and lay priest whose followers were to become known as the Lollards, a slightly rebellious and anti-clerical movement demanding biblically-centred reforms, and can be seen as the fore-runners of the reformation.

The Great Mortality also affected the architecture, where for example the building of the cathedrals of Exeter and Ely were halted for years due to the shortage of labourer. During this period, and most likely due to “know how” dying off, the style changed from decorated gothic to the perpendicular gothic with less elaborate decorations.

The Great Mortality also left its mark on the art produced during and after the plague, in the sense that it gave visual art, literature and music with images turning away from optimism and towards hell, Satan and Grim Reapers. This influence would linger, and eventually result in the Memento Mori (remember you are mortal) genre.



Sources: England in the time of Richard III, Leicester University (course material)

A Companion to John Wyclif. Late Medieval Theologian – Ian Christopher Levy (ed)

The seven periods of English architecture defined and illustrated – Edmund Sharpe

The Black Death and English art: a debate and some assumptions – Phillip Lindley

The Black Death – Philip Ziegler

History of painters –

Modification of John Wycliffe-image – John M Kennedy


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