branded with an F

A history of price fixing would have to begin in antiquity, but I didn’t encounter quotable passages in any of my ancient history books. I’m definitely encountering some in the Middle Ages. This is from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:

When death slowed production, goods became scarce and prices soared. In France the price of wheat increased fourfold by 1350. At the same time the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest social disruption — a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks, and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity. Within a year after the plague had passed through northern France, the textile workers of St. Omer near Amiens had gained three successive wage increases. In many guilds artisans struck for higher pay and shorter hours. In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary.

The response of rulers was instant repression. In the effort to hold wages at pre-plague levels, the English issued an ordinance in 1349 requiring everyone to work for the same pay as in 1347. Penalties were established for refusal to work, for leaving a place of employment to seek higher pay, and for the offer of higher pay by employers. Proclaimed when Parliament was not sitting, the ordinance was reissued in 1351 as the Statue of Laborers. It denounced not only laborers who demanded higher wages but particularly those who chose "rather to beg in idleness than to earn their bread in labor." Idleness of the worker was a crime against society, for the medieval system rested on his obligation to work. The Statute of Laborers was not simply a reactionary dream but an effort to maintain the system. It provided that every able-bodied person under sixty with no means of subsistence must work for whoever required him, that no alms could be given to anyone who claimed him. Down to the 20th century this statue was to serve as the basis for "conspiracy" laws against labor in the long struggle to prevent unionization.

A more realistic French statute of 1351 applying only to the region of Paris, allowed a rise in wages not to exceed one third of the former level. Prices were fixed and profits of middlemen were regulated. To increase production, guilds were required to loosen their restrictions on the number of apprentices and shorten the period before they could become masters. In both countries, as shown by repeated renewals of the laws with rising penalties, the statutes were unenforceable. Violations cited by the English Parliament in 1352 show workers demanding and employers paying wages at double and treble the pre-plague rate. Stocks were ordered set up in every town for punishment of offenders. In 1360 imprisonment replaced fines as the penalty and fugitive laborers were declared outlaws. If caught, they were to be branded on the forehead with F for "fugitive" (or possibly for "falsity"). New laws were enacted twice more in the 1360s, breeding the resistance that was to come to a head in the great outbreak of 1381.

– Barbara Tuchman
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Chapter 5
“This Is the End of the World”: The Black Death
(p. 120f)


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