The year 1348 brought an event of far greater importance than the creation of a new order of chivalry. This was the terrible plague, known as the Black Death, which reached almost every part of Britain during 1348-9. Probably more than one-third of the entire population of Britain died, and fewer than one person in ten who caught the plague managed to survive it. Whole villages disappeared, and some towns were almost completely deserted until the plague itself died out.
The Black Death was neither the first natural disaster of the fourteenth century, nor the last. Plagues had killed sheep and other animals earlier in the century. An agricultural crisis resulted from the growth in population and the need to produce more food. Land was no longer allowed to rest one year in three, which meant that it was over-used, resulting in years of famine when the harvest failed. This process had already begun to slow down population growth by 1300.
After the Black Death there were other plagues during the rest of the century which killed mostly the young and healthy. In 1300 the population of Britain had probably been over four million. By the end of the century it was probably hardly half that figure, and it only began to grow again in the second half of the fifteenth century. Even so, it took until the seventeenth century before the population reached four million again.
The dramatic fall in population, however, was not entirely a bad thing. At the end of the thirteenth century the sharp rise in prices had led an increasing number of landlords to stop paying workers for their labour, and to go back to serf labour in order to avoid losses. In return villagers were given land to farm, but this tenanted land was often the poorest land of the manorial estate. After the Black Death there were so few people to work on the land that the remaining workers could ask tor more money for their labour. We know they did this because the king and Parliament tried again and again to control wage increases. We also know from these repeated efforts that they cannot have been successful. The poor found that they could demand more money and did so. This finally led to the end of serfdom.
Because of the shortage and expense of labour, landlords returned to the twelfth-century practice of letting out their land to energetic freeman farmers who bit by bit added to their own land. In the twelfth century the practice of letting out farms had been a way of increasing the landlord’s profits. Now it became a way of avoiding losses. Many agreements were for a whole life span, and some for several life spans. By the mid-fifteenth century few landlords had home farms at all. These smaller farmers who rented the manorial lands slowly became a new class, known as the “yeomen”. They became an important part of the agricultural economy, and have always remained so.
Overall, agricultural land production shrank, but those who survived the disasters of the fourteenth century enjoyed a greater share of the agricultural economy. Even for peasants life became more comfortable. For the first time they had enough money to build more solid houses, in stone where it was available, in place of huts made of wood, mud and thatch.
There had been other economic changes during the fourteenth century. The most important of these was the replacement of wool by finished cloth as England's main export. This change was the natural result of the very high prices at which English wool was sold in Flanders by the end of the thirteenth century. Merchants decided they could increase their profits further by buying wool in England at half the price for which it was sold in Flanders, and produce finished cloth for export. This process suddenly grew very rapidly after the Flemish cloth industry itself collapsed during the years 1320 to 1360. Hundreds of skilled Flemings came to England in search of work. They were encouraged to do so by Edward III because there was a clear benefit to England in exporting a finished product rather than a raw material. The surname "Fleming" has been a common one in England ever since, particularly in East Anglia, where many Flemings settled.
At the beginning of the century England had exported 30,000 sacks of raw wool but only 8,000 lengths of cloth each year. By the middle of the century ft exported only 8,000 sacks of wool but 50,000 lengths of cloth, and by the end of the century this increased to well over 100,000. The wool export towns declined. They were replaced by towns and villages with fast-flowing rivers useful for the new process of cleaning and treating wool. Much of the clothmaking process, like spinning, was done in the workers' own homes. Indeed, so many young women spun wool that "spinster" became and has remained the word for an unmarried woman.
The West Country, Wales, and Yorkshire in the north all did well from the change in clothmaking. But London remained much larger and richer. By the late fourteenth century its 50,000 inhabitants were supported by trade with the outside world, especially the Baltic, Mediterranean and North Sea ports. Its nearest trade rival was Bristol.