|Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere Illustrated Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales|
People's lives in the tumultuous fourteenth century were disrupted by the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death. These events and the accompanying social upheavals, fostered the development of a middle class of lay people who did not serve a noble. They were still the king’s subjects and were also supposed to obey the religious rules.
1) The Plague – A series of terrible outbreaks of the Great Pestilence killed about a third of the entire population, mostly inhabitants of towns and young children. Despite the horrific death toll, the Plague years gave way to a more prosperous age. Suddenly, laborers were in short supply, and consequently valuable. They were paid better and could afford good food and houses. Lands were left vacant when their owners died and became available for purchase by the newly wealthy middle class.
2) The Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) – The French Wars were waged by the kings of England over their claim to the French throne and territories. The war fueled the need for soldiers, especially English yeomen with their long bows. All able-bodied Englishmen were ordered to practice archery every day. The English yeomen with their longbows formed the mightiest war weapon of that age. A skilled archer could shoot six arrows a minute with a range of several hundred yards and pierce armor. Yeomen with longbows contributed to the decline of knights as a major force in battle.
|Battle of Crecy showing Anglo-Welsh longbowmen; Jean Froissart - http://www.maisonstclaire.org/resources/chronicles/froissart/book_1/ch_126-150/fc_b1_chap129.html|
The Middle Class
3) Merchants and craftsmen in towns owned shops and traded without serving a lord. The merchants’ guild elected a town mayor from their members. Skilled people like physicians and lawyers might also work independently of a noble.
|Weavers, Giovanni Boccaccio, Medieval Life|
4) Yeomen, the archers who fought for the king or his nobles, could win riches and own land. A landowner with sufficient wealth might also become independent.
The rise of the middle class led to a blurring of the distinctions between nobles and commoners. A yeoman with modest farmland might marry the daughter of a poor knight.
Most people lived in the countryside in villages or farms. London was the largest city in Britain with a population of about 40,000. Bristol at 10,000 people was the second largest city. Most cities and towns had populations of about 1000 to 2000 people.
My Medieval Romance, Dame Audrey, tells the story of a cloth merchant's widow and a yeoman who inherits land.