What Was Life Like in 14th Century England?
The 14th century was, both worldwide and in relations to England, a century of social turmoil, filled with plague, famine, and an unprecedented desire for social mobility. By the end of the 1300s, the long-standing system of serfdom which had previously been the core of English socioeconomic and class relations had started to irreversibly deteriorate. The key turning point was the Black Death of 1348 (which began the year prior in Europe) and saw the foundations of English society shake. Therefore, it makes sense to look at the 14th century not as one unit but rather as two, with the plague as a divider.
Before the plague, English life for the peasant class remained fairly unchanged from what it had been for hundreds of years. Medical technology and practices had been slowly improving over time, although more so in the Islamic world than in Europe, and many afflictions — such as the Black Death itself — were explained as divine punishment or by superstition, rather than any biological cause. England’s population had grown rapidly from the year 1200, rising to 5 million by 1400. This increase was largely spurred on by, and subsequently encouraged, the prosperity of England’s agricultural economy — which still made up a very rural society — caused by the adoption of crop rotation techniques. This, in turn, led to an increase in the number of towns. Although many were small, others, such as Norwich, consisted of around 5,000 inhabitants and the biggest cities, such as London, neared 40,000 in population. This meant that society was no longer merely agricultural and other professions, such as in the exportation of wool and cloth, could be pursued.
The Church was also a prevalent force at this time as England was still highly Christian (as a result of, and certainly a cause of, scientific ignorance) and this constituted a significant part of a peasant’s life. A peasant was under an economic obligation to pay a tax (known as a ‘tithe’ to the Church), which came in the form of 10% of the value of the land that he farmed. At a time when peasants were struggling to get by, this tax was deeply unpopular, although it was rarely challenged due to the deep-set nature of religious faith. Indeed, the majority of the population were not even able to comprehend the words delivered to them from the Bible each Sunday, as it was not given in the vernacular and the vast majority of the lower classes could only speak English. Most were also illiterate, which meant that independent religious practice was difficult and possession of books was pointless as well as expensive. At this time, books were often as much a testament of wealth as an intellectual endeavour. Books were incredibly expensive, especially as the printing press would not be invented until 1440, and were often encrusted with jewellery to signify the wealth of its owner.
Whilst life was certainly hard for a 14th-century commoner, with a bad harvest being the difference between life and death, there was still time for pastimes. Such activities included gambling, such as dice games, and playing Chess. Alternatively, inns had, since their emergence during the 12th and 13th centuries, increased in number throughout the country, offering commonfolk an opportunity to relax and converse with others. The exact hobbies and feelings of peasants during this time remains somewhat unknown due to the lack of credible primary sources as a result of a high illiteracy rate and the gradual decomposition and deterioration of the few physical first-hand accounts, which were often lost or discarded.
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