Reflection on Parliament, Politics and Pandemics in Later Medieval England

In October the History of Parliament were delighted to welcome a sell-out audience to Westminster for our 2022 Annual Lecture- our first in-person lecture after a hiatus of two years. Here our Public Engagement Assistant, and new addition to the History of Parliament team, Kirsty O’Rourke reflects on the lecture, ‘Parliament, Politics and Pandemics in Later Medieval England’, given by Professor Chris Given-Wilson.

A copy of a 17th century pamphlet on the plague in London. In the centre there is a large skeleton standing on coffins floating in the Thames. The skeleton is waving weapons at a crowd of people. Some of the crowd appear to be moving away from the skeleton, and three of them are standing of with the skeleton throwing weapons at him. The skeleton is twice the size of the people. In the background is the skyline of 17th century London and at the top is a grey cloud shooting out lightning. There is writing at the top: Lord, have mercy on London. Writing in the middle: I follow. We fly. And at the bottom: Wee dye. Keepe out. Blow this copy is a symbol of the History of Parliament, a white portcullis and a blue square, and the writing 'The History of Parliament: British Political, Social and Local History'.
The History of Parliament Annual Lecture 2022

This year’s annual lecture was given by Professor Chris Given-Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of St Andrews and former member of the History of Parliament’s editorial board. Professor Given-Wilson presented Parliament, Politics and Pandemics in Later Medieval England to a capacity audience.

To begin the 2022 lecture, Professor Given-Wilson reassured the audience that his talk was ‘not actually about a pandemic’, instead it was ‘about the medium and long-term consequences of a pandemic’. Something I am sure a lot of us are currently contemplating in our own lives. In fact, the key focus of the lecture was on legislation: the statutes and laws passed as a direct result of pandemics throughout later medieval England.

Throughout the many pandemics and health crises during the Middle Ages, the purpose of parliament and the laws it passed changed significantly. The framework and regulation of labour shifted from private, local authority to national and public authority, and the health of the nation became the subject of parliamentary decision-making. As Professor Given-Wilson explained, this was a significant development in English society, and signified a major extension of parliament’s attempts to control the labouring classes.

When the Black Death arrived in England in June 1349, the English government passed the ‘First Ordinance of Labourers’, which attempted to protect livelihoods and incomes – the livelihoods of the rich, that is. The Black Death brought issues for landowners: high death rates created a ‘great scarcity of labourers’, and those still alive were now demanding higher wages. Therefore, the First Ordinance of Labourers was issued to make sure that ‘every able-bodied adult’ under 60 had to work, or they would be imprisoned, and it forbade increases in wages. This ordinance was reinforced in 1351 with the Statute of Labourers. Throughout the many waves of plagues, more and more laws were passed to control the labouring classes.

A photograph of a man who has short dark hair and a grey beard. He is wearing a blue silvery shirt and a blue tie with a black lanyard. He is stood behind a brown lectern and is gesturing with his left hand. Behind him is a large TV screen with a quote from the Parliament of 1439, it is hidden by the man.
Professor Chris Given-Wilson at the History of Parliament Annual Lecture.

These laws went from shocking to downright bizarre. In 1388, the Cambridge Statute of Labourers decreed that no agricultural labourer could send their child to school to prepare them for a career in church. Instead, children had to work at the same occupations as their parents, and if they had worked on the land up to the age of twelve, they could not be admitted to a trade apprenticeship. Not only were these laws introduced to control working conditions and career choices, but leisure activities, too. They started to control more and more aspects of the labouring classes’ lives.

Football was banned in 1314 for being ‘too noisy’, and in the fifteenth century indoor games such as dicing and cards were banned, too. Parliament appeared to be worried about these games; Professor Given-Wilson explained that they believed these indoor games might lead to violence and poverty. Throughout the plagues, statutes and laws appeared to become more concerned with the possibility of violence from the ‘lower orders’. As Professor Given-Wilson had mentioned, the ‘scarcity of labourers’ meant that some workers began to demand higher wages and would refuse to work until they received a pay rise. Therefore, statutes began to be passed to prevent ‘insurrection’ from the lower orders. This included the Statute of 1390 which banned the labouring classes from participating in hunting as Parliament worried that these activities would foment rebellion.

Many of the more bizarre laws created incredulous murmurs throughout the audience, but these were most audible when Professor Given-Wilson outlined a statue entitled ‘The Pestilence’ passed by the Parliament of 1439 during yet another plague year. The statute, passed as King Henry VI turned eighteen, forbade those paying homage to the King to partake in the act of kissing him. As Professor Given-Wilson surmised, and the audience appeared to agree, ‘Poor Henry VI – eighteen years old, and couldn’t be kissed’.

The audience remained captivated throughout the lecture and Professor Given-Wilson was met with a flurry of hands when History of Parliament Chair of Trustees Lord Norton of Louth opened the floor to questions. Professor Given-Wilson was able to respond to a wide range of questions, from domestic and international comparisons to the impact of plagues and the discussed legislation on women’s social standing. Throughout his answers, Professor Given-Wilson paid notice to the many other academics in the audience who would be able to add to the discussion, encouraging the conversation to continue after the lecture.

A photograph of two men. The man on the left is sat down behind a table with short, thinning, white hair. He is wearing glasses, a black suit and tie and a lanyard. His hands are clasped together and he is looking towards the man on the right. The man on the right is stood behind a lectern. He has short, dark hair that is greying, a grey beard, and is wearing glasses, a blue shirt and tie, and a black lanyard. Behind him is a TV screen that is obscured but says 'Parliament, Politics, and Pandemics in Later Medieval England'.
Lord Norton of Louth and Professor Chris Given-Wilson at the History of Parliament Annual Lecture.

As Professor Given-Wilson concluded, we should not ‘underestimate the consequences of a pandemic’. The Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 was the first of multiple laws that came in to control the everyday life of the individual, extending greatly the jurisdictional scope of the English Parliament. From wage freezes and work becoming compulsory, to the regulation of dress and leisure activities, the English government began to claim a right to intervene. However, as Professor Given-Wilson noted, while we know these laws were passed, how effectively they were enforced is more difficult to know. So, while these plagues may have changed the purpose of Parliament and the laws it passed, how effective these statutes were is a different matter.

A special thank you to Professor Chris Given-Wilson for a fantastic lecture.


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