But sterner measures were soon found to be necessary. Not only was the price of labour fixed by Parliament in the Statute of 1351, but the labour class was once more tied to the soil. The labourer was forbidden to quit the parish where he lived in search of better-paid employment; if he disobeyed he became a "fugitive," and subject to imprisonment at the hands of the justices of the peace. To enforce such a law literally must have been impossible, for corn had risen to so high a price that a day's labour at the old wages would not have purchased wheat enough for a man's support. But the landowners did not flinch from the attempt. The repeated re-enactment of the law shows the difficulty of applying it, and the stubbornness of the struggle which it brought about. The fines and forfeitures which were levied for infractions of its provisions formed a large source of royal revenue, but so ineffectual were the original penalties that the runaway labourer was at last ordered to be branded with a hot iron on the forehead, while the harbouring of serfs in towns was rigorously put down. Nor was it merely the existing class of free labourers which was attacked by this reactionary movement.
The increase of their numbers by a commutation of labour services for money payments was suddenly checked, and the ingenuity of the lawyers who were employed as stewards of each manor was exercised in striving to restore to the landowners that customary labour whose loss was now severely felt. Manumissions and exemptions which had passed without question were cancelled on grounds of informality, and labour services from which they held themselves freed by redemption were again demanded from the villeins. The attempt was the more galling that the cause had to be pleaded in the manor-court itself, and to be decided by the very officer whose interest it was to give judgement in favour of his lord. We can see the growth of a fierce spirit of resistance through the statutes which strove in vain to repress it. In the towns, where the system of forced labour was applied with even more rigour than in the country, strikes and combinations became frequent among the lower craftsmen. In the country the free labourers found allies in the villeins whose freedom from manorial service was questioned.
These were often men of position and substance, and throughout the eastern counties the gatherings of "fugitive serfs " were supported by an organized resistance and by large contributions of money on the part of the wealthier tenantry. A statute of later date throws light on their resistance. It tells us that "villeins and holders of lands in villeinage withdrew their customs and services from their lords, having attached themselves to other persons who maintained and abetted them; and who, under colour of exemplifications from Domesday of the manors and villages where they dwelt, claimed to be quit of all manner of services, either of their body or of their lands, and would suffer no distress or other course of justice to be taken against them; the villeins aiding their maintainers by threatening the officers of their lords with peril to life and limb, as well by open assemblies as by confederacies to support each other." It would seem not only as if the villein was striving to resist the reactionary tendency of the lords of manors to regain his labour service, but that in the general overturning of social institutions the copyholder was struggling to become a freeholder, and the farmer to be recognized as proprietor of the demesne he held on lease.
A more terrible outcome of the general suffering was seen in a new revolt against the whole system of social inequality which had till then passed unquestioned as the divine order of the world. The cry of the poor found a terrible utterance in the words of "a mad priest of Kent," as the courtly Froissart calls him, who for twenty years found audience for his sermons, in defiance of interdict and imprisonment, in the stout yeomen who gathered in the Kentish churchyards. "Mad" as the landowners called him, it was in the preaching of John Ball that England first listened to a declaration of natural equality and the rights of man. " Good people," cried the preacher, " things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? They are clothed in velvet, and warm in their furs and their ermines, while we are covered with rags.
They have wine and spices and fair bread; and we oat-cake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and the wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and of our toil that these men hold their state." It was the tyranny of property that then as ever roused the defiance of socialism. A spirit fatal to the whole system of the Middle Ages breathed in the popular rime which condensed the levelling doctrine of John Ball: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
The rime was running from lip to lip when a fresh instance of public oppression fanned the smouldering discontent into a flame. Edward the Third died in a dishonoured old age, robbed on his death-bed even of his finger-rings by the vile mistress to whom he had clung; and the accession of the child of the Black Prince, Richard the Second, revived the hopes of what in a political sense we must still call the popular party in the Legislature. The Parliament of 1377 took up the work of reform, and boldly assumed the control of a new subsidy by assigning two of their number to regulate its expenditure: that of 1378 demanded and obtained an account of the mode in which the subsidy had been spent. But the real strength of Parliament was directed, as we have seen, to the desperate struggle in which the proprietary classes, whom they exclusively represented, were striving to reduce the labourer into a fresh serfage. Meanwhile the shame of defeat abroad was added to the misery and discord at home. The French war ran its disastrous course: one English fleet was beaten by the Spaniards, a second sunk by a storm; and a campaign in the heart of France ended, like its predecessors, in disappointment and ruin.