Yesterday I completed the third on line course that I have studied through FutureLearn, six weeks of finding out more about England in the time of King Richard III. The main lesson that hit home was how many aspects are recognisable and relevant today. To quote Hegel: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Prior to the 14th century, peasants in England were tied to a landlord through tenancy agreements that required them to maintain their dwelling and work both the land that they rented and common land. Starting at the beginning of the 14th century a series of crises, including poor harvests, murrains and famines, resulted in population stagnation and economic decline. This trend, clearly established in the early 14th century, was dramatically accelerated by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348-9. The most recent studies set the overall mortality figure as high as 50% of the population. Plague returned in the 1360s, and population remained low throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.
The great mortality of the 14th century resulted in increased demand for labour in both town and country, and a corresponding rise in wages. The government of the time made strong attempts to control this and acts were passed that tried to curb the process. Records of transgressions reveal the strategies used by the workforce to improve their situation. It is clear, for example, that workers were now resisting attempts to make them stay in the same place, or enter into contracts that committed them to fixed wages for extended periods; mobility offered much greater opportunity for improved pay, and net mobility seems to have been in favour of the towns. Peasants were clearly abandoning the ties that held them to a perpetual subservient relationship.
The wealthy often strive to depress wages for the workers they rely on for their wealth. In Britain today we have a situation where the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and successive governments are doing all that they can to maintain this. Those who wish to find a job are often required to work unwaged in order to receive the safety net of benefits which ward off starvation and homelessness. The benefits system retains a series of sanctions that force compliance; payments are withdrawn if meetings are missed or if a recipient is not deemed to be trying hard enough to abide by the rules, however nonsensical they may be. Numerous deaths have been reported amongst those who have had benefits withdrawn, the stress and hardship of the withdrawal being cited as a factor in their demise.
Even amongst the more affluent, work experience placements and internships are now a common means of gaining contacts in order to secure future employment. These can be tricky to organise, often requiring the exploitation of familial associations only available to a few. With higher education costed to ensure that it may only be afforded by the rich, or those willing to accept the lengthy restrictions of a huge debt, certain jobs have been put beyond the reach of the new peasantry.
The middle ages saw a period of improvement in the lives of the poorest which the wealthy resisted. Alongside this improvement came innovation, for example the introduction of the printing press which enabled the production of affordable books (yay!). Alongside increased mobility, information could be disseminated more easily. With the decrease in subjugation the masses were not so easy to control, a situation which those in power feared as it threatened to disturb their own, comfortable and established lifestyles.
I am not suggesting that modern Britain is returning to the conditions of the middle ages, but I find it interesting to note the parallels. Throughout history periods of economic growth have benefited all in society with innovation and improvements in living standards, yet the powerful continue to feel threatened by such changes. Ever eager to protect their own positions they put in place barriers and controls, suppressing those who they deem lazy or undeserving, promoting only those they recognise, who agree with their personal point of view.
On a lighter note, another parallel that I noted between 14th century England and the present day was to do with food. As peasants moved to the towns to find work, landowners could no longer find or afford enough labour to work the land in the old ways. This led to an increase in keeping livestock. Broader affluence alongside changes in supply resulted in the poorer classes eating more meat, a commodity previously beyond their means. As peasants regularly placed beef, pork and mutton on their tables, the wealthy looked to differentiate their meals in other ways. Consumption of, for example, birds that were hard to catch became popular amongst the gentry looking to impress their acquaintances. Hunting was restricted and poaching policed to ensure that only the wealthy had access to certain, elite foodstuffs.
This desire to eat exotic meals that were not available to the masses reminded me of the food fads that exist today. Certain TV chefs love to promote innovation, eating combinations of ingredients that would not previously have been known about or considered. Previously unheard of ingredients become popular, fading away when too many people start to use them as standard. Quinoa anyone?