The James Ford Lectures 2019 - After the Black Death: Society, economy and the law in fourteenth-century England

As the single greatest catastrophe in recorded history, the Black Death of 1348-9 continues to grip both the popular and scholarly imagination.  This series of six lectures reassesses the main social, economic, legal and cultural responses to the great mortality during the second half of the fourteenth century and explores how they were shaped by the prevailing institutional framework—the rules, laws and belief systems—regulating social and economic behaviour in England.


Lecture One: Old problems, new approaches (18 January 2019)

The scale, impact and significance of the Black Death have divided opinion since the nineteenth century, but recent multi-disciplinary research has sought to restore its central position in the transition from feudal to modern society.  The reconstruction of the institutional framework of pre-plague England—as revealed through the workings of the land, labour and grain markets—enables its subsequent dynamic interaction with sudden and precipitous demographic decline to be properly explored.

Lecture Two: Reaction and regulation (25 January 2019)

scalating prices and the sudden shortage of labour in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death posed an urgent threat to the ordained social order, spurring both seigniorial attempts to tighten control over serfdom and a raft of ambitious new government legislation.  By the 1360s, however, compromise and competition were more prominent than coercion, and irreversible institutional changes had been set in motion.


Lecture Three: A mystery within an enigma: the economy, 1355-75 (1 February 2019)

The absence of many of the anticipated economic and social consequences of the Black Death during the third quarter of the fourteenth century, and the presence of many contradictory signals, have long puzzled historians.  The mystery owes much to the disruption and volatility caused by a succession of further environmental and epidemiological crises in the 1360s, and to the complex human responses to the continuing instability and uncertainty.


Lecture Four: Injustice and Revolt (8 February 2019)

Recent studies of the Peasants’ Revolt have focused less on modern pre-occupations with class and revolution and more upon the common threads of conflict uniting different social groups across diffuse power structures.  This perspective provides fresh insights into the innate tensions and widespread sense of injustice generated by the structure and implementation of government legislation between the Black Death and the uprising.

Lecture Five: A new equilibrium, c.1375-1400 (15 February 2019)

The economic downturn of the mid-1370s and the easing of social tensions after 1381 are held to represent a watershed, after which English society finally settled into a post-plague equilibrium.   This interpretation is not readily reconciled with evidence from the late 1380s for continuing economic turbulence, heightened anxiety about how to deal with the shortage of labour, and renewed social conflict.

Lecture Six: The end of serfdom and the Rise of the West (22 February 2019)

How far had English society shed ‘feudal’ institutions—such as serfdom—and replaced them with discernibly ‘modern’ institutions—such as contractual tenures and the European Marriage Pattern—by the end of the fourteenth century?  An assessment of the nature and scale of institutional change offers insights into the role of the Black Death in bringing about the change and the distinctiveness of the English experience.


poster v3 0