Demographics of Chaucer’s England

Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales over about a ten year period spanning the late 1370’s and most of the 1380’s. This was a time of general recovery of the population and economy of Medieval England, which had suffered greatly over the majority of the century leading up to that point.  Here’s a list of the major events:

  • 1315-1317:  The Great European Famine
  • 1348-1349: The Black Death
  • 1361-62: Major Plague Outbreak in England
  • 1369: Major Plague Outbreak in England
  • 1375: Another Major Plague Outbreak in England

One has to consider the impact that these events would have had on the society of Medieval England that Chaucer was not only writing about, but living in himself. This data provides an opportunity to add an additional frame to the great frame story of the Canterbury Tales that outlines the historical reality of life from a demographic and economic point of view.

 

The two main benchmark years for reconstructing the population of this period are 1086, which is given by the Domesday Book that recorded the manors that had been established by the Normans in England. Another key date especially for understanding Chaucer is 1377, which provides Broadberry and his colleagues with invaluable data on the Medieval English economy and population from the Poll Tax returns. Their estimates from these and other manorial accounts and tax returns in other years give us this amazing picture of the demographic trends of the time.

From 1086, just 20 years after the Norman conquest, the English population is roughly 1.6 million. Then for the 12th and 13th centuries there is a steady and aggressive growth of the population until it reaches a peak of around just under 5 million at the turn of the 14th century. It’s at this point that there is a reversal beginning with the Great Famine in 1315, which resulted in a serious lack of grain to feed the massive population and a series of successive crop failures put a great strain on feeding this population that resulted in a drop of about 10%. But over the next couple decades the population managed to recover as crop conditions stabilized.

In 1348 the Black Death arrived and over a period of just 3 years the population of England dropped by nearly half. Unlike the years after the Famine their is no recovery seen in the data but only a steadily deepening decline worsened by recurring outbreaks of plague across the country. Add to this a few minor crop failures and it becomes easy to see how this was happening. Children were not living to adulthood and adults either weren’t having children or were dying in too great of numbers to produce enough children to replenish the population.

 

This chart represents an estimate of the available total kilocalories per person during several periods of Medieval England. Broadberry and his associates derived these figures from data collected from Medieval manorial records that detailed harvest dates, crop yields, and grain prices, etc. According to a source they site (Livi-Baci) the average person in Medieval England would have required about 2,000 kilocalories per day to adequately sustain themselves.

Their data shows that leading up to the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century the capacity to feed everyone in the population was insufficient. Indeed it seems to be inversely correlated, at least for the 14th century, with the growth of the population. After the Black Death we witness both a dramatic decrease in population and a subsequent dramatic increase in total Kcals available person in the following years and decades. The reconstruction for the decade of 1380-1389, which was the decade that Chaucer wrote his work in, was the most plentiful decade in terms of available food through the whole Medieval period, that data is available for.

Here is a heat map detailing the distribution of the English population by county. The darker the color the higher percentage of the total population that particular county made up. What we see is there is a heavy concentration in the South East, where Canterbury is located in the county of Kent, and the South West of the country. This shows that Medieval society was becoming more concentrated around urban centers like London, which is represented in the characters of the Canterbury Tales. This also indicates that plague would have, and did, spread more quickly in these areas of close proximity which would have led to higher rates of infection and death.