So that was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague—maybe a third to a half of the population. Under those circumstances, the feudal system was what the experts call ‘unsustainable.’ Serfs were expected to keep the food supply going full steam with only a partial crew on each manor. The way it was supposed to work was serfs paid their rent by giving the lord of the manor their harvest and keeping some for themselves. With smaller harvests, the serfs saw their portion get cut. They were working harder for lower pay.
Did I mention? Serfs had to pay taxes to the king, too—so there goes another chunk of the food they’d hoped to live off of that year. If you’re a serf, you’re starting to get plenty torqued. It was at this moment the geniuses who run the English government thought, “Now’s an ideal time to collect those unpaid poll taxes.”
It was too much. Serfs and peasants from all over England got together—they gathered a bigger crowd with each manor they passed—and marched on London to tell whoever would listen that they weren’t paying the poll tax. A guy named Wat Tyler emerged as the peasants’ leader. They broke into the Temple and destroyed tax records. They killed the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer and other officials. Finally, 14-year-old King Richard II rode out to meet the mob and somehow talked them out of killing him, too. Richard promised a bunch of reforms. He kept the peasants there long enough for the London militia to arrive and arrest or break up the crowd. Wat Tyler was killed.
I include this episode merely to show the effects of the bubonic plague, its terrible death toll and the cheesed-offedness of the serfs. The Peasants’ Revolt didn’t accomplish anything much that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Richard (or his handlers) didn’t keep his promises, but the feudal system was already over, kaput, done, stick a fork in it. Why? The Laws of Supply and Demand, gang. It eventually dawned on the serfs that they were in short supply—a limited resource—which increased the demand for them. Lots of farm fields, only a few farmers. There was nothing to keep serfs tied to one lord’s manor anymore. They could set up on their own and negotiate terms. A voluntary exchange of labor for wages. The beauty of the free market.
“That’s nice, Manders. What’s it got to do with reading and writing?” That’s an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It turns out not only were people fed up with feudalism, they’d begun to question the way the Church was run, too. One guy in particular thought that more people ought to read the Bible.
I love this little illumination of Richard II in his ship meeting the peasants (although it looks more like an army to me)—https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11780/richard-ii–the-peasants-revolt/
Laws of Supply & Demand:
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.