The Black Death and the Invention of the Pub

Editor’s Note:  Great article from the Telegraph by Hannah Furness

The Black Death may still be making its presence felt 650 years after it ravaged Europe, as a historian claims it led directly to the creation of the pub.

The plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, but in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later, said Prof Robert Tombs of Cambridge University.

Peasants had increased leisure time and freedom, so pubs became places for playing games, meeting and socialising.

The amount of free time available to 15th century workers was not equalled until the 1960s, Prof Tombs said.

Prof Tombs, speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival in Wiltshire, said: “Terrible though it is to say, the Black Death actually had some rather good effects. This was a good time to be alive.

“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”

Explaining why the century afterwards could be seen as a good time to live, Prof Tombs said: “The population was getting too great, becoming a strain on resources in agricultural society.

“And after the Black Death, things started to look up. People got better off. There was more land to go around. Resources were not so stretched. What was later called the feudal system largely disappeared.

“Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, ‘Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.

“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.

“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.

“And that I think is where it starts. In all countries there are drinking places, but I think there is a sense that it’s not just for drinking but also for sociability, not just to get blind drunk and fall under the table.”

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