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A History of Money, Part 5

By Edited Dec 4, 2015 0 0

In 1328, the dreadful plague known as the Black Death spread to Europe. The plague struck country after country though the trading ports, spread by fleas living on the rats that infested ships. Medieval populations were virtually helpless as the plague ran rampant, wiping out an estimated 200 million people in Europe alone. By 1348 the Black Death reached England, killing as much as 30 to 40% of the population in only two years. 

With the precipitous drop in population the demand for labor increased sharply. Much farmland was converted to pastureland which required less heavy labor, and peasants were able to command much higher wages than in the past. The urgent need for more laborers also prompted lords to offer peasants incentives to leave their former villages and come work for them on their lands instead, a major departure from the feudal structure that bound peasants to their location.

The newfound bargaining power and mobility of the peasants was a threat to the established feudal order, and the Statute of Labourers was passed in 1351, mandating that peasants could not be paid more than the wage rates paid in 1346, and that they would not be permitted to leave their own villages. This caused deep resentment and anger on the part of the peasants, which would resurface dramatically several decades later.

Meanwhile, there was continued concern over both the debasement of the coinage, and over the loss of bullion from within the nation. Barons continued to exercise their stronger bargaining powers via parliament. The Statute of Stepney of 1299 had outlawed the importation of debased coins and restricted the amount of gold and silver that could be exported from England, and in 1351 the provisions of the Statute were strengthened. Concerns over the illegal exportation of coins had also prompted the Crown to introduce a reduction in the weight of the penny some decades earlier, but as the feudal system changed the Crown came under much greater scrutiny than it had in the past. In 1352 Parliament passed the Statute of Purveyors, intended to discourage the King from any further reductions in the weight of the penny.

In 1377 Richard II succeeded his grandfather and became King at the age of ten. The King's youth and inexperience naturally led to the Barons and the Church wielding the greatest political influence, and they exploited these circumstances to their own advantage. The Hundred Years War between England and France had already broken out in 1337, and although the looting, plundering, and extracting of ransoms had initially favored the English, changes in fortune throughout the war prompted the imposition of numerous unpopular taxes. Once the power shifted to unscrupulous lords and abbots during Richard II's reign, they began to pass laws forcing the peasants to pay a flat rate tax called "the poll tax."

Poll taxes were a major hardship for the peasants, particularly since the tax had to be paid in currency rather than agricultural produce. The imposition of the poll taxes added immensely to the deep resentment the peasants already felt over the oppression from the Statute of Labourers. By the time the third poll tax was passed in 1381, anger and resentment among the peasants had reached such extremes that an anti-tax revolt broke out in Essex, rapidly picking up steam and spreading throughout the country. The huge uprising became known as the Peasants Revolt, or "Wat Tyler's Rebellion" (after a mysterious man who led the main group of rebels).  

The revolt took the King and his men by surprise, and they found themselves in an occupied London as a huge force of peasants (generally estimated at around 50,000) entered the city demanding the abolition of the taxes, among other things. The King was initially forced to agree to the rebels' terms to avoid being killed, but as soon as the rebellion had been calmed, royal troops were rallied and the leaders of the rebellion were executed. The King's promises were revoked, and several thousand peasants were also sent to the gallows for their participation in the rebellion. However, despite the death of the revolt itself, the incident spoke clearly to the Crown, the Church, and the feudal lords, who were obliged to treat the peasants with less impunity than they had done under the old model of the feudal system, which was beginning to break down.  

This history of money will continue in Part VI, featuring the emergence of European banking houses and the "Great Bullion Famine" of the 14th and 15th centuries.

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