Changing Fortunes during the Fifteenth Century Recession

Changing Fortunes during the Fifteenth Century Recession

A.T. Brown

Symeon, Issue 2 (2012)


The global financial crisis of the past five years has been described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the Levin-Coburn report finding that ‘this was not a natural disaster, but the result of high risk, undisclosed conflicts of interest, and the failure of regulators’. The fifteenth-century recession, by comparison, was a product of one of the worst natural disasters of documented English history: the Black Death. In the late thirteenth-century there was immense pressure on resources, with a population that Bruce Campbell has estimated to be as large as the land could sustain without agricultural innovation. On the eve of the Black Death the population was some five or six million, but by 1377 it had been reduced to just 2.5 million, with low fertility and subsequent outbreaks of pestilence further diminishing the population to just 2.1 million by 1490.

This demographic crisis created a whole host of problems for landlords centred on the relative abundance of land, with the years from 1430 to 1465 witnessing ‘one of the most sustained and severe agricultural depressions in documented English history’. Postan famously described the fifteenth century as an ‘age of recession, arrested economic development and declining national income’, whilst Hatcher aptly summarised the pervading historiographical gloom surrounding this period when ‘tales of falling land rents, of retreating cultivation, of dilapidated holdings, and often also of chronic insolvency, pervade the rural history of the fifteenth century’.

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