chapter
INTRODUTION
Pages 60

A. THE PEOPLE AND THE LAND WILLIAM LANGLAND may have spent his working days in crowded London streets; but his great visions were located on a Malvern hill-top, from which he looked down on a fair field full of folk. This was a symbolically appropriate way of surveying the society of his England, which was a country, not of great numbers and big cities, but of few people dwelling in small towns, villages and hamlets. For every twenty Englishmen now, there was, at the beginning of our period, probably only one; and the population is not likely to have been larger than this in 1485. These sparse numbers were scattered predominantly in villages and hamlets of the south and midlands of England. London was much the biggest city in the country; but its population was probably less than 50,000. York may well have been the only other town with more than 10,000 people and most towns had less than 5,000. A very rough idea of the distribution of the population may be gained from the poll tax returns of 1377, even though, as now preserved, they omit the clergy, the children, the very poor, some privileged groups, and all types of folk in various areas. They show that south-east of a line drawn from York to Bristol settlement was on the whole much thicker than to the north-west of it. The most densely populated areas were Holland in Lincolnshire, with fifty-four per square mile, Norfolk, with forty-eight, and Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire, with over forty, on the whole; whereas the average density of the population of England and Wales nowadays, even including the almost uninhabited mountainous areas, is nearly eight hundred per square mile.1 There are several indications that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many towns had grown in size and more land had been taken into cultivation. But if we could return to the England of the fourteenth century, the predominant impression would be one of small villages and hamlets at the edge of, or surrounded by, heaths and commons, woods and forests, fens and marshes. In spite of developments in commerce and industry, agriculture remained the main occupation of the great majority of people, and the rural setting of their lives is reflected in their interests and their literature and songs. At the beginning of our period this agrarian society was just reaching a crisis in its fortunes. The late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries had been a time of exuberant expansion. The population had probably doubled between the time of Domesday Book and the end of the thirteenth century. The increase in the number of mouths to be fed, both in England and on the continent, is reflected in the rise in the cost of foodstuffs; for example, the price of wheat trebled between the late twelfth and the early fourteenth centuries.2 Under the stimulus of this rise in cereal prices, and by 1 Cf. R.A.Pelham, “The Distribution of Population”, in Historical Geography of England, ed. H.C. Darby (C.U.P., 1936), 231 ff. Cf. D.N. 556. 2 M. Postan, “The Trade of Medieval Europe: The North”, The Cambridge Economic History, II, 165-6.