19 April 2020

Richard Power Sayeed: “In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population, hastening the breakdown of rigid social hierarchies — what we now call ‘feudalism’ — to an astonishing degree. But there was nothing inevitable about that transformation. It happened because [peasants] exploited the crisis. Local protests and uprisings against landlords had happened before, but after the Black Death they became more common. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the biggest, but it was an overreach and was defeated. The ruling aristocracy resisted the peasants’ demands from the outset. … But the peasants’ movement survived; in fact, it thrived. Some landlords cut their rents by more than half between 1350 and 1400. In the same period, wages for agricultural workers rose by around 50% for men and 100% for women. And by the turn of the century, almost all rents in England were paid in cash, rather than feudal services, reflecting how many former serfs had bought their freedom. … In recent weeks, some people have optimistically predicted that the Covid-19 outbreak will force governments to build fairer economic systems. But the peasants’ story reminds us that change isn’t automatic… Conservatives are organising already, … gearing up for a return to austerity when the downturn slows. … Like the generations of peasants who took advantage of their landlords’ need for labour, we hold enormous power, but only if we fight together.”