14: The Rise of the Peasant
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I have told you much about princes and soldiers, but very little
about the lowly life of peasants, and the trade of towns.
The conquest of Wales, by Norman baron and English king, tended to
raise the serf to the level of the freeman. The chief causes of the
rise of the serf were the following:
1 The ignorance of the English officials. The Norman baron very
often paid close attention to the privileges of the classes he ruled,
and the Welsh freeman retained his superiority. But the English
officials—and Edward II. found that they were far too numerous in
Wales—often refused to distinguish between a Welshman who was an
innate freeman and a Welshman who lived on a serf maenol. Their aim
was to make them all pay the same tax.
2. The fall in the value of money. At the time of the Norman
Conquest, silver coins were rare, and their value high. But, in
exchange for cloth and wool, of arrows and spears, of mountain ponies
and cattle, coins came in great numbers, and it was easier for the
serf to earn them. That is the value of coins became less.
This was a great boon to all who were bound to pay fixed sums—the
freeman who paid to the king the dues he used to pay to his prince,
the serf who paid to his lord a sum of money instead of service. All
ancient servitude, political and economic, was commuted for money; as
the money became easier to get, the serf became the more free.
3. The rise of towns and the growth of commerce. We must not,
however, think of commerce as if it had been first brought by the
Normans. There had been roads and coins in Roman times. The Danes
had been traders, probably, before they became pirates and invaders.
Timber, millstones, cattle, coarse cloth, and arrow-heads crossed the
Severn eastwards before the Normans saw it; and corn was carried
westward. There were close relations, political and commercial,
between Wales and Ireland from very early times.
But the Norman and English Conquests revived and quickened trade.
Towns rose, regular markets were established, and the barons who took
tolls protected the merchants who paid them. Every baron had a
castle, every castle needed a walled town, and a town cannot live
except by trade. In the town the baron did not ask a Welshman
whether he had been free or serf; the townsmen were strangers, and
they welcomed the serf who came to work.
4. The monk and the friar. The bard was a freeman born, a skilled
weaver of courteous phrases, not a churlish taeog. The monk or friar
might be a serf. They worked like serfs, and ennobled labour. The
Church condemned serfdom, and we find chapters giving their serfs
5. The Scotch and French wars of the English kings gave employment
to hosts of bowmen and of men-at-arms, and to the numerous attendants
required to look after the horses by means of which the army moved.
The greater use of infantry after the reign of Edward I. caused a
greater demand for the peasant; and the use of the cheap long-bow
gave him a value in war. There were five thousand Welsh archers and
spearmen on the field of Cressy. In these and other ways the serf
was becoming free.
You would expect a gradual, almost unconscious struggle, between the
serf and his lord for political power. The struggle came, but it was
conscious and very fierce. It was brought about by a terrible
pestilence, known as the Black Death. This plague came slowly and
steadily from the East; in 1348 it reached Bristol, and it probably
swept away one half of the people of the towns of Wales. It was not
the towns alone that it visited; it came to the mountain glens as
well. It was a most deadly disease. It killed, for one thing,
because people believed that they would die. They saw the dark spots
on the skin before they became feverish; they recognised the black
mark of the Death and they gave themselves up for lost.
Labourers became very scarce. They claimed higher wages. The lords
tried to drag them back into serfdom; they tried to force them by law
to take the old wage. On both sides of the Severn the labourers took
arms, and waged war against their lords. The peasant war in England
is called the Peasant Revolt; the peasant war in Wales is sometimes
called the revolt of Owen Glendower.
A change came over the rebellions in Wales. At first, the rebellions
were those of Llywelyn's country; the allies who had deserted him,
and then turned against Edward, like Rees ap Meredith; or his own
followers, like Madoc, who said he was his son; or men he had
protected, like Maelgwn Vychan in Pembroke. Later on, under Edward
II. and Edward III., the rebellions were against the march lords, and
the king was looked upon as a protector—such as the rebellion of
Llywelyn Bren against the Clares and Mortimers in Glamorgan in 1316.
But the wilder spirits went to the French wars, and fought for both
sides. With the assassination of Owen of Wales in 1378, the last of
Llywelyn's near relatives to dream of restoring the independence of
Wales, the rebellions against the King of England came to an end.
When they broke out again, it was not in Snowdon or Ceredigion; the
old dominions of Llywelyn were almost unwilling to rise. The new
revolts were in the march lands, and especially in the towns.
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