Extract from Agriculture and Rural Society after the Black Death
The extract is the full editors' Preface
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a turbulent period that has attracted the close attentions of economic historians ever since the possibility of medieval economic studies was first contemplated. The Black Death has always stood out as a disaster, although its significance as a cause of change, both in short-term and longer-term analysis, has been much discussed and disputed. Notwithstanding its severity, some analyses place a more critical turning point in economic development earlier, around 1315–30, and others place it later, around 1385–1400. One great advantage of these discussions has been to increase our awareness of the complexity and multicausal determination of economic trends, and of the need to approach the later Middle Ages with a sharper eye to evidence of variations of experience from place to place and from time to time. The chapters in this volume have been inspired by the need to sharpen up these perceptions, both with the help of new data and by the closer analysis of what is already known.
One source of new data of general relevance derives from evidence of ecclesiastical tithe receipts, which in principle relate to peasant output as well as that of better recorded manorial demesnes. The three chapters in the volume that make use of such data were originally prepared for a conference held at the College of St Hild and St Bede in Durham in September 2002. At that time Ben Dodds was engaged in a novel and at times disconcertingly experimental research programme using evidence from the tithe receipts of Durham Priory, and there was a pressing need to have this work discussed in a wider context. John Hare kindly offered a chapter evaluating tithe evidence from the other end of England, and Robert Swanson agreed to cast a critical eye over the whole question of tithe management and the value of tithe data. These three chapters represent a new initiative in the economic history of the Middle Ages, and one which has now been advanced both by the publication of Ben Dodds’ findings and by an ESRC research project to explore tithe data from southern England. The results of this work will be published over the next few years. Richard Britnell’s chapter was presented at the conference as an attempt to summarise what could be said about fluctuations in the rural economy during the century after the Black Death using evidence already published. The chapters by Phillipp Schofield, Simon Harris, Elizabeth Gemmill and John Mullan were also prepared for this conference, which aimed broadly to advance our knowledge of economic and social developments in the later Middle Ages.1 These have since been supplemented, for the purposes of this volume, with a new chapter from Peter Larson to illustrate an aspect of rural development that was not represented in the original collection.
The editors are committed to the view that regional studies are of greatest value when they contribute to an understanding of widespread historical changes, and to that end have contributed three introductory chapters, and a conclusion, to place the more specialised chapters in context. There is no good reason why that context should be narrowly English, since many of the changes experienced in England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were closely linked to developments in much of Europe. The availability of several recent general surveys of English agrarian change in this period has persuaded us all the more that it would be useful to adopt a more broadly based approach. The northern English origins of the volume will nevertheless be apparent from the titles of the chapters; three out of the nine relate to north eastern England and one to eastern Scotland.
Note: 1. Another paper prepared for this conference was David Stone’s ‘The productivity and management of sheep in late medieval England’. This was subsequently awarded the Agricultural History Society’s Golden Jubilee Essay Prize, and was published in the Agricultural History Review 51 (2003), pp. 1–22.