This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The feudal system introduced by the Normans, though beneficial in some respects as tending to ensure the personal security of individuals, operated powerfully against progress in agricultural improvements. War and the chase, the two ancient and deadliest foes of husbandry, formed the most prominent occupations of the Norman princes and nobles. Thriving villages and smiling fields were converted into deer forests, vexatious imposts were laid on the farmers, and the serfs had no interest in the cultivation of the soil. This may be inferred from the fact that as late as the close of the thirteenth century the highest rent was sevenpence an acre, while some land was let at as low as a penny per acre. Obviously the forest laws and the restrictions on the killing of the depredators of crops so militated against agricultural pursuits that it was scarcely worth striving to cultivate the ground, inasmuch as this were more to the benefit of the chase than the farmer.
But agriculture found encouragement among the ecclesiastics, mainly because their lands were free for cultivation as they considered best calculated to augment their resources, and also that they might derive most benefit from the tithe (Anglo-Saxon, theotha, "a tenth part"), which is first mentioned in any written English law in 786, a synod in that year enjoining the payment of tithes, hence we may conclude not before compulsory. In 794, Offa, king of Mercia, made a law whereby he gave the tithes of all his kingdom to the Church, a law which was made general for all England by Ethelwulf, and about 1200 a.d. the tithes of each parish were allotted to its own particular minister by the written law of the land.
The chief feature of Magna Charta as regards agriculture was that many parts of the charter were pointed against the abuses of the power of the king as lord paramount, the tyrannical exercise of the provisions of the forest laws was checked, and many grievances incidental to feudal tenures were mitigated. Magna Charta Liberatum, the Great Charter of Liberties, was extorted from King John by the confederated barons in 1215. A second confirmation of Magna Charta was granted by King Henry III, the benefits of the charter being extended to Ireland. The Charter of Forests, the ninth Act of Henry III, was the first statute by which the forest law was explicitly determined. By this instrument, which materially contributed to the comfort and prosperity of the nation, all the forests which had been enclosed since the reign of Henry II were thrown open, offences in the forest were declared to be no longer capital, and men convicted of the once heinous crime of killing the king's venison were made punishable only by fine or imprisonment. Thus the nobles, ecclesiastics, yeomanry and free peasantry were granted full liberty of sporting upon their own territories, provided they abstained from the king's forests.
This applied to the winged, interdicted by King John, as well as the four-footed creation, and implied lands enclosed, improved and cultivated, while the ruminant and rodent animals, other than domesticated flocks and herds, naturally fled into woody and desert tracks, which were called forests.
Town Charters granted under the reign of Henry II, 11.54-89, which freed the towns from the direct influence of the barons, conferred no Parliamentary privileges until Magna Charta, 1215, which compelled the king to obtain the consent of the enfranchised classes before levying taxes, and the extension of the Parliament to include the Commons, or burgesses (voters in corporation towns), in the first House of Commons in 1265. The lowest form of franchise, however, was that of the members of close corporations or burgesses of towns, so that the great mass of the people were practically serfs, without political or legal rights, whose duty it was to render certain services to the lord of the manor in return for the privilege of obtaining their own living from the land which they were not allowed to leave. But as the towns grew up and industry developed, merchants and artizans began to organise themselves into guilds, practically "trade unions," in order to further the particular interest involved, and because the feudal system was found too local in character and unfitted for the expansion of the national life - the growth of prosperity amongst the people from both manufacture and agriculture.
The richer tenants, feeling the feudal obligation to render services in labour to their lords was unbearable, began to commute them for money payments, which they found more economical, and the poorer began to earn their living by hiring themselves out as wage-paid labourers to others, besides working on their own land.
The Great Plague, called on account of its terrible effects the "Black Death," in 1348, destroyed nearly half of the population, and there was a sudden and complete disorganisation of industrial life. Labourers, because of scarcity, could command high wages, and tenants obtain low rents from landlords, who were anxious to let their land and who were compelled to remit the traditional services. Albeit, King and Parliament strove to make the labourers take the same wages as before the Plague, enacting dire penalties in the Statute of Labourers, 1350, and the landowners did their best to tie down the labourers to the soil. Free labourers and tenants who had commuted their services for money payments, were attacked, lawyers employed as stewards on manors, and their ingenuity exercised in trying to restore the landowners' right to customary labour, while former exemptions and manumissions were often cancelled, and labour service again demanded from the villeins or freemen.
The Statute of Labourers led to a gradual union of labourers and tenants of all classes against the landowners. There came a visitation of the plague in 1361, and also in July and September, 1369, each of which rendered labour scarcer and labourers more bold in their demands. These were met by repressive measures of Parliament and landowners, which in turn gave inducement to combinations of workmen in towns, and to gatherings of villeins and fugitive serfs in the country districts, where the manorial lords, in difficulties, were pressing the villeins to render actual service.