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HC 253 -R74 1894



HE following chapters, extracted from my larger work,

and printed in a cheap form, have been published separately in order that they may reach those who might be deterred by larger volumes, and especially by those portions of them which deal with political history and bygone social conditions. I have, therefore, printed those chapters only which deal with comparatively modern facts.

It is significant and instructive, that at present persons are beginning to take a novel but profound interest in the condition and the history of those who live on wages, and to consider the narrative of their fortunes to be as inieresting and important as constitutional antiquities, to be more important than military and diplomatic annals.

It is still more significant, that the political economist appears to be returning to his proper and ancient function, that of interpreting the causes which hinder the just and adequate distribution of wealth, and that he is putting into the background those airy and unreal speculations which have, during the last three-quarters of a century, been made his main business, to the serious injury of the practical lessons which he might have inculcated.





WHE average price of a quarter of wheat for the 280 years,

1261-1540, is 5s. 11 d. During this long period there were
years of exceptional plenty and of exceptional scarcity, the range
being from 28. 10 d., the average of the year 1287, the lowest,
and 16s. in 1316, the highest recorded. The latter year is,
however, one of the famine. In 1315, the average was about
1s. 2d. lower. In 1438, the price was 14s. 7d. In 1527, it
is nearly 13s. On two other occasions it nearly reaches 12s. On
four occasions it is a little over 10s. Four shillings, according
to Walter de Henley, was a price below remuneration, unless the

crop was more than six bushels to the acre.

In ordinary years, the price varies between 4s. 6d. and 6s. 68. There are, of course, prices paid which are greatly above the highest average, and others which are a great deal below the lowest.

If there be any scarcity, the market is always at its highest in May, because the stock of the past harvest is falling low, and the prospects of the next are uncertain. Thus, the harvest of 1315 was found after Christmas to have been exceedingly deficient. That of 1316 vas as baca, so low that the scarcity was hardly lightened during any part of the period between harvest and harvest. The highest quotation of wheat in modern English history was in March 1801, when it was returned at 156s. 2d. This, however, is not much more than double the customary price of that time. In the two years 1315-16, the average was nearly three times, and on one occasion, five times, the ordinary price.

I do not think, however, that the climate of England from the forty-fifth year of Henry III. to the thirty-first of Henry VIII., 280 years in all, could be treated as extraordinarily capricious or treacherous, since in only ten of the years did the price of wheat nearly reach or exceed double the average, the two greatest scarcities of 1316 and 1438 being separated by an interval of 122 years, and the third, that of 1527, occurring after an interval of eighty-nine years. It may be stated, too, that when the harvest is bad, it is always worst on a belt which lies between the Thames and the Wash, and includes the Midland and Eastern Counties. Hence the whole of the country is seldom similarly affected, South Wales and the southern promontory of Cornwall and Devon being generally more favoured when bad harvests afflict the Midland and Eastern Counties. This is even seen at the commence. ment of the great famine of 1315-16, for during the first year, the Welsh and extreme West were not so seriously injured. In the second year, the ruin is universal. As may be expected, cori. is generally cheapest in the early winter, dearest in the early summer, even when the price is at an average, unless the previous year has been one of comparative scarcity, when the purchase oi seed always affects the average. If the prospects of the coming year are of abundance, the rise in May and June is very slight, and hardly appreciable. There is, I think, reason to couro le, on looking at the course of the wheat markets, that information as to the aggregate crop was very widely diffused, and that corn was sent to very considerable distances for sale. There were horses and carts in plenty, the rate of carriage was low, and the bailiff could easily reach a market where there was a demand. Beyond question, the surplus produce of country places was taken to the nearest towns, and sometimes to those which were at a distance.

The cause of bad harvests is always excessive rain. In the years 1315-16, we are told that the wet was incessant, and much of the corn never ripened. Contemporary writers tell us that the poorer classes were constrained to live on unwholesome or disgusting food, and that numbers of them perished from famine. An attempt was made to procure corn from the Continent, and ordinances were published fixing maximuin prices—of course without avail—and prohibiting the consumption of beer, as was done in 1800 with the distilleries. To add to the distress, a pestilential murrain broke out among the cattle, and the bailiff's rolls bear testimony to the universality of the disease, and the magnitude of the losses. It is said by chroniclers, that in the universal scarcity, numbers of servants and domestics were discharged; that, made desperate, these people became banditti ; and that the country folk were constrained to associate themselves in arms, in order to check the depredations of those starving outlaws.

That the famines of this unfortunate period led to a considerable loss of life is proved by the unquestionable rise in the rate of agricultural wages after their occurrence. This is visible in the payments made for threshing corn, and still more markedly in those for reaping, where the rise is fully a penny an acre, the exaltation in the rates for oats and rye, previously the lowest paid, being the most considerable. The same rise is seen in payments for mowing, for thatching, and for women's labour. Now it is generally the case that, unless the labourer is paid at a rate which leaves him no margin over his necessary subsistence, an increase in the price of his food is not followed by an increase in the rate of wages, this result being arrived at only when there is a scarcity of hands. We shall see, when we come to deal with the wages of the sixteenth century, how slight was the rise in their amount compared with that of other values. Now the exigencies

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