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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

book jacket

Author's response


King Death: the Black Death and its Aftermath in Late Medieval England

by Professor Colin Platt
UCL Press, 1996

Dr. Phillip Schofield

(Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure)

It is almost five years to the day since I first put in my bookshop order for Richard M. Smith's The Population History of England 1000-1540 (Manchester University Press), advertised for 1992. I kept repeating that order, but Dr. Smith's promised book, on which I was relying for King Death, has not been published and has since been dropped from MUP's list. It is a tale I tell not to triumph over another author whose work I much respect, but to suggest that if we currently know less about population history than the demographers believe we ought, they are themselves at least partly to blame.

Phillip Schofield is a demographer. I am not. Inevitably, it is the demographic arguments which preoccupy him. Yet on what matters most - on the extent of population loss and on its long continuance - there is very little in reality to divide us. All Schofield is saying, making frequent use of Ormrod & Lindley's The Black Death in England, published in the same month as King Death, is that the long-running fertility v. mortality debate is still continuing. And there too, if he had studied my endnotes with the same attention as the rest, he would have found me saying much the same. In those notes I quote Bennett against Goldberg, Barron against Hanawalt, Penn and Dyer against Campbell, and so on. And there are also clear warnings throughout my book - surely sufficient to alert even the sleepiest 'general reader' - of the many imperfections of the late medieval sources and of the diminutive size of most samples. In the last analysis, what determines our selection of evidence is our perception of another scholar's worth. My own pantheon of socio-economic historians includes Razi and Poos, Hatcher and Dyer, Goldberg, Bailey and Campbell. They all know their documents, and are perfectly aware of the limitations and deficiencies of their sources. For similar reasons, Richard M. Smith is the historical demographer I have come to respect and most trust. But when will he publish his conclusions?

Once parted from his own specialism, Dr Schofield's interest and his knowledge fall away. Yet there are other 'areas of unresolved debate' in my book on which I take sides: on the fifteenth-century gentry, on late medieval peace-keeping, and on rich old ladies. And though I rather regret the last now, for it has started a number of hares, there is one major omission (unspotted by Dr. Schofield) which I regret still more, and which I welcome this opportunity to acknowledge. In Richard Britnell's and John Hatcher's recently published Progress and Problems in Medieval England (CUP, July 1996), there is a path-finding chapter by John Hatcher himself on the 'Great Slump' of the mid fifteenth century. That slump, largely caused by coin shortages, gets no more than a mention in the last paragraph of my chapter on 'Shrunken Towns'. Yet shortly after finishing King Death, and before reading John Hatcher's paper, I became so persuaded of the recession's huge importance as to put together a new proposal for a book on it. I should have done the reading before. But the Research Assessment Exercise, it seems to me, must share the blame. When I first chanced upon Peter Spufford's Money and its Use in Medieval Europe (CUP, 1988), the RAE was pressing and it was already too late to follow up his references (as subsequently I was able) to take adequate account of the views of the monetary historians. Being as much a specialist as Dr. Schofield is himself, I missed the great debate on the severity of the bullion crisis which, especially perhaps in the social history of architecture, could turn out to have important implications. Consider for a moment the case of the 'Wealden' house. On p. 164 of King Death, I report Dr. Sarah Pearson's conclusion - based on the most complete survey ever undertaken of the surviving Kentish housing stock - that the building of these substantial late medieval yeomen's farmhouses came to a halt for 50 years at the mid century. Sarah Pearson herself could offer no adequate explanation for this long pause; and neither could I when I first read her. Now, however, I believe I can; and I draw two particular morals from the experience. First, blinkered specialisms can be needlessly destructive - before slinging stones, let's take better care to learn what others do. Second, successive RAEs, repeated far too frequently, are killing much more than they can cure.

December 1996

Original review

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