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Historical Tales, Vol. 4 (of 15) by Charles Morris

The laborer was once more made a serf


ended famously for England, another proud chaplet of victory being added to the crown of glory of Edward III. and his valiant son, the great day at Crecy being matched with as great a day at Poitiers. Agincourt was still to come, the three being the most notable instances in history of the triumph of a handful of men well led over a great but feebly-handled host. The age of knighthood and chivalry reached its culmination on these three memorable days. It ended at Agincourt, "villanous gunpowder" sounding its requiem on that great field. Cannon, indeed, had been used by Edward III. in his wars; but not until after this date did firearms banish the spear and bow from the "tented field."


In that year of woe and dread, 1348, the Black Death fell upon England. Never before had so frightful a calamity been known; never since has it been equalled. Men died by millions. All Europe had been swept by the plague, as by a besom of destruction, and now England became its prey. The population of the island at that period was not great,--some three or four millions in all. When the plague had passed more than half of these were in their graves, and in many places there were hardly enough living to bury the dead.

We call it a calamity. It is not so sure that it was. Life in England at that day, for the masses of the people,

was not so precious a boon that death had need to be sorely deplored. A handful of lords and a host of laborers, the latter just above the state of slavery, constituted the population. Many of the serfs had been set free, but the new liberty of the people was not a state of unadulterated happiness. War had drained the land. The luxury of the nobles added to the drain. The patricians caroused. The plebeians suffered. The Black Death came. After it had passed, labor, for the first time in English history, was master of the situation.

Laborers had grown scarce. Many men refused to work. The first general strike for higher wages began. In the country, fields were left untilled and harvests rotted on the ground. "The sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn, and there were none left who could drive them." In the towns, craftsmen refused to work at the old rate of wages. Higher wages were paid, but the scarcity of food made higher prices, and men were little better off. Many laborers, indeed, declined to work at all, becoming tramps,--what were known as "sturdy beggars,"--or haunting the forests as bandits.

The king and parliament sought to put an end to this state of affairs by law. An ordinance was passed whose effect would have made slaves of the people. Every man under sixty, not a land-owner or already at work (says this famous act), must work for the employer who demands his labor, and for the rate of wages that prevailed two years before the plague. The man who refused should be thrown into prison. This law failed to work, and sterner measures were passed. The laborer was once more made a serf, bound to the soil, his wage-rate fixed by parliament. Law after law followed, branding with a hot iron on the forehead being finally ordered as a restraint to runaway laborers. It was the first great effort made by the class in power to put down an industrial revolt.

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