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Posted: 28 Jul 2013, 04:10
by Stanley

I have often said that my researches into the history of Barnoldswick are works in progress. I can give you my version but then along comes new evidence and I have to re-assess what I have told you. Nowhere is this more true than in what I am going to pursue this week. However, I am in good company! G M Trevelyan, possibly our greatest twentieth century historian wrote in 1942 that the plague ‘was a fortuitous obstruction fallen across the river of life and temporarily diverting it’. He claimed that it was just as important as the Industrial Revolution and I agree with him, indeed, I would go further and say that it was one of the essential precursors of the massive changes of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tearing between a quarter and a third of the population out of society must have had an effect. What we have to do is make some educated guesses as to what those effects were and what consequences ensued. In economic terms we can be certain that it savagely reduced the available labour. Whilst it is true that even before 1348 the peasants had been gaining a little ground in their dealings with the lords in that some element of money had entered the structure of rents and remuneration for service, this was only marginal. The villagers, or villeins as they were called were still virtually slaves tied to their lords land. The lords managed the population in such a way as to ensure that they were well enough fed to breed and produce a surplus of labour thus ensuring that it was always a ‘buyers market’. The Black Death changed all that within a year in Barlick. Suddenly, labour was at a premium and the villeins realised they had the upper hand. The lords survival depended on them working the land and they relaxed their economic hold to encourage the villeins to work for them. If a neighbouring lord offered better terms in order to get more labour the peasants did what would have been unthinkable before 1349. They migrated to where the best conditions were. We hear a lot nowadays about ‘economic migration’ between countries. This was exactly what happened in England but between lordships and many villages were depopulated to the point of extinction.

These abandoned villages seem to more numerous in the more southerly parts of England, I do not know of a single one in our area that expired due to the plague. There may be a good reason for this in that we know that there was a fulling mill in Burnley before 1342 as there exists a set of accounts for its repair. The Court Rolls of the Honour of Clitheroe in 1311 and 1323 mention a fulling mill at Colne and another one at Worston in 1311. Fulling mills were an essential part of the woollen industry and so we can be certain that there was a thriving cottage industry spinning and weaving wool as early as the late 13th century. This means that some of the villeins in Barlick probably had an independent source of income before the plague struck. It would make sense to them to divert their labour into the cottage textile industry rather than flee to find better conditions. This independence would put further pressure on the lords and there is evidence that it became more profitable to rent holdings off for cash than to exact tithes of produce and service. Any labour they needed was paid for in cash and, in effect, wage labour expanded far faster than would otherwise have been the case.

We know that this happened widely in England because the lords tried to claw back their rights and were supported in this by Acts of Parliament. The Ordinance of Labourers was passed by the Commons on the 18th of June 1349. This was the first of a series of measures designed to curb wages and restrict the movement of labourers. These Acts would not have been passed if there was no need for them. They led to resentment amongst the villeins and this simmered just beneath the surface for many years with consequences we shall look at later.

The plague year of 1349 had other consequences in Barlick. The fact that the plague struck down people regardless of rank or position shattered the notion that these people, including the clergy, were less sinful or more important. The one good thing that could be said about the Black Death is that it was no respecter of persons. This sowed the seed in men’s minds that perhaps the ‘Chain of Being’ wasn’t unbreakable after all. Remember the attack on Bishop Ralph at Yeovil, this was open rebellion against the church and its teachings, evidence of independent thought. I won’t go so far as to say that the Black Death was the birth of dissent and non-conformism but it certainly looks like a nudge along the way. I also believe that the relaxation of the iron grip of the lords in the aftermath of the plague stimulated the entrepreneurial instinct in the cottage textile industry and perhaps gave some of the weavers a glimmer of the hope that they could be totally independent.

So where does all this leave us with Barlick in 1350? We can be certain that the community had suffered from the plague and assuming a total population of say 400, over 100 had died and been buried in the churchyard at Gill. The hold of the Cistercian monks of Kirkstall over the village had been shaken and a logical response would have been to allow leases for rent and to turn a blind eye towards failure to give service. A cash rent must have been more attractive to the Abbey particularly as the cottage textile industry gave some tenants independent income. Anyone who took advantage of this relaxed burden and became a tenant would feel that they had advanced up the ladder of life and once started, there was no reason why they shouldn’t climb even further. Confidence in the power, and therefore the authority, of the church had been irretrievably damaged. There was suddenly the space for independent thought and a measure of dissent. Things would never be the same again.

I went down into the bottom half of Gill Churchyard the other day, right next to the Gill itself running across the back of the site. It was cold and grey and overgrown and it looks to me like the ideal place for plague burials. Within Holy Ground but far enough away from the church to give an illusion of protection. It was very easy to imagine poorly clad villagers hurriedly burying their dead on a cold winter day. Wherever they are, I hope they rest in peace.

SCG/21 December 2006
1,111 words.

One pic attached. Caption reads: The 11th century view of society, peasants farming and Lords feasting.


Posted: 02 Mar 2019, 02:49
by Stanley