From the Labour Laws to Basic Income via the Black Death and COVID-19

Jane Whittle

Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma and loss?

My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the 14th century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.

The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early 19th century.

Perhaps a little background is useful here. 14th-century England was a largely rural society. Agriculture was the main form of production. It was also highly unequal. Land was owned by manorial lords and peasants not only worked the land but paid rents to their lords. A significant proportion, probably around half, of these peasants were unfree: they were subject to serfdom. Serfdom was oppressive: legally serfs could not own any property (it belonged to their lord), they could not leave the manor (or village) in which they lived, they could not marry without permission, and they paid heavy rents to their lords in cash, goods, and labour. Lords had large farms which were cultivated for profit using the unfree labour of their tenants. In practice, things weren’t quite so bad – lords lacked the power to enforce the full strength of their legal rights. They rarely confiscated peasant property and usually failed to trace peasants who ran away. The rents paid by unfree tenants were often lower per acre than those of free tenants. Free tenants paid market-determined rents, and as land was in very short supply these rents were very high in the early 14th century. But nonetheless serfdom was demeaning and humiliating. It was loved by lords and hated by peasants because it gave legal force to the power of wealth and social superiority. It was relatively easy to maintain some form of serfdom before the Black Death because of the shortage of land: peasants would suffer serfdom if it meant they could get a good landholding.

The Black Death changed this. People died and land became plentiful. So why did the government – the king and a Parliament which was made up almost entirely of manorial lords – not seek to reinforce serfdom? Why did they turn their concern to wage labour instead? It had always been difficult to enforce the full weight of serfdom, and now it became more so. Lords had already realised that wage labour was a much more efficient way of cultivating their land than serf labour.

Not all lords and members of Parliament had unfree tenants. But everyone in Parliament employed wage workers: servants, craftsmen and agricultural labour. What is more, a wider group within society who were also employers could be enlisted to help enforce these new laws.

Serfdom was left to wither away, but over the next 250 years from 1351 to 1601, Parliament returned repeatedly to the issue of how to regulate and discipline wage labour. Peasants gained personal freedom, but at the same time much of the population were subject to a new set of laws. The labour laws were not nice. They enforced maximum wages, made work compulsory for the able-bodied (men and women) below a certain level of wealth, they stacked the cards against the worker and in favour of the employer in negotiating contracts. Leaving work before the end of a contract was illegal, movement around the country in search of better pay was labelled ‘vagrancy’ and severely punished. And the laws came with a new system of enforcement that was national and relied on public courts and public officials. As most wage workers were young and/or poor it created a new social structure that pitted all those with property – wealthy peasant farmers and townspeople as well as manorial lords – against those who had little other than their labour.

After the Reformation in the 16th century the labour laws were bolstered by the Poor Laws: these offered relief to those who were deemed deserving, but aimed to set the ‘idle poor’ to work. The children of those dependent on poor relief, or likely to become so, could be taken away and placed in other households as unpaid workers (or temporary slaves known as pauper apprentices) until they reached adulthood. Structures of employment have changed over time, but the principle of equating poverty and lack of work with idle laziness has remained.

Like British society in the 1340s or the 1930s, we are currently in a bad place. In a similar moment of crisis – what innovations of government and socio-economic policy might COVID-19 provoke? 14th-century Parliaments were not democratic – they acted in favour of the small elite they represented. In contrast, present day Parliament and government should represent us all and act in everyone’s best interests. But our welfare system, like the early modern poor laws, tests eligibility by deliberately humiliating applicants. It assumes poverty is caused by laziness. Levels of homelessness, child poverty and the working poor are unacceptable. A small minority earn enormous salaries and see themselves as having no responsibility for the rest of society. Rather than trying to replicate the highly unequal societies of the past we need some new thinking: a new revolutionary social policy.

Yesterday Rebecca Long-Bailey suggested that the UK should introduce Universal Basic Income during the COIVD-19 crisis. It is not my aim here to endorse a particular political party, still less a particular faction of one. But I agree that Universal Basic Income is not only an excellent solution to the hardship faced during this crisis – but also a more permanent solution to a whole raft of social and economic problems faced by modern society.* It is a means of distributing wealth more equally and giving people the dignity and freedom they deserve. Perhaps it is now time to move beyond the existing inequalities of wage labour, just as medieval society moved on from serfdom. We can not only hope, but demand, that the current state of crisis leads to something good amid all the trauma and loss.

*If you doubt its practicality I strongly recommend reading Guy Standing’s Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen (Penguin, 2017).

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