The Effects of the Great Plague
It is impossible to overstate the effect of the Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1348 and 1350. 30-60% of Europe’s population died, depending upon which figures you believe. The best estimates in England seem to be around 40%. That wasn’t the end of it, however: it returned at intervals for the next 60 years.
How does this relate to the Demon Carvers? We know that it is extremely unlikely that they were at work in 1350. However, the Plague almost certainly has several influences on this narrative.
Firstly, the masons were not spared its effects. The Demon Carver(s) would have learned his or their craft from one of a very diminished population of master tradesmen. To add to the scarcity, the royal projects took priority. Some County Sheriffs were actually set quotas of masons to be sent to London or elsewhere demanded by the King.
Secondly, labour scarcity led, unsurprisingly, to a general increase in wages and a acceleration of the breakdown of the feudal system. There is evidence that even before the Great Plague a general surplus of labour was leading to feudal duties being reduced in some areas of the country - as well as a general hunger in the land. The chaos of the Plague made it hard for landowners to successfully pursue absconders.
After the Plague those labourers left were able to demand higher wages from desperate manorial lords. Ordinances and Statutes pegged wages and prices to pre-Plague rates and this had some effect it seems. Another Plague in 1361-2, however, reduced the population by another 25%. Landowners now found their labour costs doubling and their produce prices tumbling. Faced with this, many chose simply to let their land out for cash rents rather try to farm it profitably themselves.
The 1361 outbreak was known as "The Pestilence of the Children." This outbreak killed the young disproportionately since they did not have the acquired immunity of those who had lived through 1348-50. The next generation of apprentices, tradesmen and labourers was, therefore, also severely reduced.
All of this paints a picture of scarcity of supply and an increase in wages in most trades. What is remarkable about the Demon Carvers is not only that their work is visible at a a number of churches but also that their work seems to account for more than 50% of the frieze carving in his area. We are not talking here of a few churches amongst many: there seems to have been one (surely small?) group of carvers of this kind of work over the whole of Rutland and the margins of at least two adjoining counties. This is wholly consistent with the certainty that after the Black Death there was a general shortfall in masons and carvers.
After the Plague the fashions in church architecture themselves changed. The Decorated period of Gothic architecture gave way decisively to the Perpendicular. Let’s be clear that the first manifestations of this new style were seen some twenty years before Great Plague. Perpendicular style, however, offered a simpler, more consistent style that was more appropriate for the post-Plague recovery period when probably 50% of the masons had perished. At this time we also see the practice of “shop” work emerge whereby window mouldings and the like were carved at the quarry rather than at the building site. Most texts state this as a fact without trying to explain why this should be the case. It seems to me, though, to again be very consistent with post-Plague social changes. Labour shortages would enable carvers to dictate that the church masons should come to them rather than that they should go cap in hand to beg for employment at the site as had historically been the case.
Perpendicular churches are often magnificent in style and proportions but there is a uniformity about much of the external features, especially window mullions. Although the perpendicular style predates the Plague - though only just - we might speculate that the development of off-site “shop work” drove this uniformity. If the Plague had not occurred perhaps we would have seen more diversity of styles produced by more independently-minded masons working on site.