Statute of Labourers 1351

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The Statute of Labourers was a law created by the English parliament under King Edward III in 1351 in response to a labour shortage, designed to suppress the labor force by prohibiting increases in wages and prohibiting the movement of workers from their home areas in search of improved conditions.[1] It was poorly enforced and did not stop the rise in wages.[2]

Background[edit]

The Black Death or Bubonic Plague, which killed more than one-third of the population of Europe, killed 30%−50% of the population in Britain, caused a dramatic decrease in the supply of labour. Lords suddenly faced a sharp increase in competition for workers to work for them. Labourers had increased bargaining power and commanded higher wages. The increase in labour cost also led to inflation throughout the economy. The elite class lamented the sudden shift in economic power. In an attempt to control labour costs and price levels, Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349. Parliament attempted to reinforce the Ordinance with the Statute of Labourers.

Content[edit]

The statute set a maximum wage for labourers that was commensurate to wages paid before the Black Death, specifically, in the year 1346. It also mandated that able-bodied men and women work, and imposed harsh penalties for those who remained idle. It required as follows:

Consequences[edit]

The statute's changes failed to take into account the changing economic conditions during the Black Death, and furthermore the period from which wage levels were taken was one of economic depression in England as a result of The Hundred Years' War. Therefore, wages during the Black Death were set even lower to match those during this depression. In practice, the statute was poorly enforced and unsuccessful, but it set a precedent that distinguished between labourers who were "able in body" to work and those who could not work for whatever reasons. This distinction resurfaced in later laws regarding poverty.

The Statute of Labourers (and its counterpart, the Ordinance of Labourers) were, of course, very unpopular with the peasants, who wanted higher wages and better living standards, and was a contributing factor to subsequent peasant revolts, most notably the English peasants' revolt of 1381. Similar processes happened throughout Europe – wage caps following a labour shortage after the Black Death resulting in popular revolts.

The Statute was poorly enforced in most areas, and farm wages in England on average doubled between 1350 and 1450.[3]

Cohn, comparing numerous countries, argues that these laws were not primarily designed to freeze wages. Instead, he says the energetic local and royal measures to control labor and artisans' prices was a response to elite fears of the greed and possible new powers of lesser classes that had gained new freedom. Cohn says the laws reflect the anxiety that followed the Black Death's new horrors of mass mortality and destruction, and from elite anxiety about manifestations such as the flagellant movement and the persecution of Jews, Catalans, and beggars.[4]

See also[edit]

  • Apprentices Act 1536
  • Statute of Artificers 1562, acceptance of work made compulsory, and hours of labour fixed for husbandry
  • Statute of Labourers 1603 (1 Jas 1 c. 6) allowed justices of peace to fix hours of work for all classes of worker. It became a criminal offence for workers to receive more than their set price of wages.
  • Combination Act 1800 (39 Geo 3 c 106) summary jurisdiction to convict workmen who, by intimidation, persuasion, or by other means, induced persons not to work, or who refused to work with other workmen.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972).
  2. ^ Poos 1983
  3. ^ Gregory Clark, "The long march of history: Farm wages, population, and economic growth, England 1209–18691." Economic History Review 60.1 (2007): 97-135. online, page 36
  4. ^ Samuel Cohn, "After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe," Economic History Review (2007) 60#3 pp. 457-485 in JSTOR

Further reading[edit]

  • Clark, Gregory. "The long march of history: Farm wages, population, and economic growth, England 1209–18691." Economic History Review 60.1 (2007): 97-135. online, statistics
  • Cohn, Samuel. "After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe," Economic History Review (2007) 60#3 pp. 457-485 in JSTOR
  • Poos, Larry R. "The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement." Law and History Review (1983) 1#1 pp: 27-52.
  • Putnam, Bertha Haven. The enforcement of the statutes of labourers during the first decade after the black death, 1349-1359 (1908). online
  • Cohn, Samuel. "After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe," Economic History Review (2007) 60#3 pp. 457-485 in JSTOR

External links[edit]