February 13, 2017, by Harry Cocks

Lincoln in the age of the Black Death

Did the Black Death, civic corruption, political decay and economic crisis lead to Lincoln’s precipitate economic decline in the fourteenth century?  Nottingham Ph.D Alan Kissane’s new book Civic Community in Late Medieval Lincoln:  Economy and Society in the Age of the Black Death, 1289-1409 challenges that view. Medievalists have usually seen Lincoln as declining from its fiscal and trading dominance in the three centuries after the Norman Conquest, partly as  the result of the plague and the removal of key financial institutions such as the debt courts known as the Staple. The corruption of Lincoln’s civic elite, which ultimately led to the suspension of the city’s liberties in 1289, has also been seen as a key factor contributing to the collapse of an effective and reliable civic government during this period.  The plague also removed suitable candidates for office.  Lincoln also became less attractive to traders following the withdrawal of the Staple to Boston in 1369, which minimised local business and economic opportunities as links to the European cloth and wool markets receded. This was both a reflection and a symptom of the shrinking population which saw Lincoln lose its status as one of the king’s leading towns, a position it was never to regain.

And yet, despite the persistence of this narrative of Lincoln’s decline, it is nevertheless likely that the fortunes of Lincoln were in fact far more positive. The archive shows that Lincoln’s taxes, its support for the Anglo-Scottish and Hundred Year’s wars through the manufacture of arms, its growing status as a judicial centre for the county, and its status as a financial centre for the Midlands all allowed the city’s industry to remain bouyant before and after the initial bout of plague. It also retained important fiscal and judicial functions too. The growth and the success of the indigenous wool trade around 1300 also compensated for the city’s failing cloth industry, and Lincoln became the de facto inland centre of trade. Subsequent complaints over the perceived poverty of the city – usually seen by historians as evidence of Lincoln’s rapid decline – were likewise no more than politicised attempts to reset the annual fiscal obligation to the crown (through the Fee Farm) which was repeatedly abused for over four decades after c.1370, with the city being forced to pay more than it was legally bound to do. Lincoln’s civic government was also remarkably resilient in the face of ongoing demographic and economic problems. The new measures introduced after the restitution of the city’s liberties in 1300 (after eleven years in the king’s hands) meant that Lincoln was better able than most other towns to recruit and maintain a pool of well qualified officials even in the wake of the Black Death. While it remains true that the devastation wrought by subsequent plagues, and before it the famine of 1315-22 and the economic recession of the 1330s, severely affected various aspects of Lincoln’s society and economy, these setbacks nevertheless failed to halt the foundation of dozens of new religious institutions, including guilds and chantries. The latter reflected and inspired new patterns of devotion and commemoration, which have been largely neglected in existing work on the city. The Black Death, in particular, did not alter in any fundamental way attitudes towards death or dying, though it undoubtedly encouraged new measures for the practical management of individual goods, possessions and property. Taken collectively, then, this new evidence points strongly towards only temporary and short term hardships in the city at various junctures during the fourteenth century, not, as existing historiography suggests, sustained decline. In fact, frequent migration into the city combined with a willingness of local merchants to invest in emerging industries meant that it was only after the 1420s that Lincoln, like so many other English towns and cities, began to decline economically and politically.

Alan Kissane, Civic Community in Late Medieval Lincoln:  Economy and Society in the Age of the Black Death, 1289-1409



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