05 December 2005

Rosie the Alewife: One Boon o' the Plague

The Black Death was the trauma that liberated the new.

It can be readily seen that the Black Death accelerated the decline of serfdom and the rise of a prosperous class of peasants, called yeomen, in the fifteenth century. With "grain rotting in the fields" at the summer harvest of 1349, because of labor shortage, the peasants could press for higher wages and further elimination of servile dues and restrictions. The more entrepreneurial landlords were eventually prepared to give in to peasant demands. The improvement in the living standard of many peasant families is demonstrated by the shift from earthenware to metal cooking pots that archeologists have discovered.

The Black Death was good for the surviving women. Among the gentry, dowagers flourished. Among working-class families both in country and town, women in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries took a prominent role in productivity, giving them more of an air of independence. The beer- and ale-brewing industry was largely women's work by 1450. The growth of a domestic wool-weaving industry allowed working-class women to become industrial craftsmen in the textile industry. The graphic picture of farm women churning butter in their kitchens that George Eliot gave us in Adam Bede (set in the 1790s) was certainly occurring by 1400.
SOURCE: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor (Harper Perennial, 2002), pp. 202-203

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