Taxation in the Middle Ages (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Taxation in the Middle Ages

Q1: Study source 4. Select a passage where John Wycliffe expresses an opinion on taxation. Explain how Wycliffe attempted to persuade people that it was wrong to tax poor people.

A1: John Wycliffe was expressing an opinion when he states that "Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes." Wycliffe tried to persuade people to agree with him by pointing out the consequences of taxing poor people ("they perish from hunger and thirst"). He also provides a highly dramatic image of this suffering ("and in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood.")

Q2: Give as many reasons as you can why the king and his parliament imposed taxes. Which of these reasons do you think the king thought was the most important?

A2: Source 3 provides several reasons why the king and his parliament imposed taxes. Richard FitzNeal argues that taxes were used to pay soldiers' wages, to buy weapons, to protect towns and to maintain the monarchy.
The king's attitude towards the relative importance of these reasons would depend on his situation. In times of peace a large percentage of tax revenue would be used to maintain the monarchy. However, during war the most important reason for raising taxes was to pay soldiers' wages and to buy weapons.

Q3: What kind of different taxes were imposed during the Middle Ages? Explain the type of taxes that would have been particularly disliked by the following groups: (a) large landowners; (b) wool merchants; (c) poor peasants.

A3: There were four main taxes in the Middle Ages: (i) taxes on the ownership of land; (ii) taxes on the ownership of movable property; (iii) taxes on goods being exported; (iv) taxes on each person. Large landowners particularly disliked taxes on land, whereas wool merchants hated taxes on exports. Both groups did not like taxes on movable goods. The poor peasants did not mind taxes (i), (ii) or (iii) as they did not have to pay them. The poor hated equal rate poll taxes (iv) as they had to pay the same amount as the rich.

Q4: Explain the differences between the poll tax of 1379 and the poll tax of 1380.

A4: In 1379 the peasants only had to pay 4 pence per head. What the rest of the population paid depended on their wealth (this is known as progressive taxation). For example, the Duke of Lancaster paid 400 times more than a peasant. However, in 1380 the peasant had to pay 12 pence per head. What is more, the tax ceased to be progressive as all people, except beggars, paid the same.

Q5: What did the author of source 8 think about the 1381 poll tax? Would everyone in England have agreed with him?

A5: The author of source 8 thought that the 1381 poll tax was unfair. The rich people who voted for the poll tax in parliament probably thought the tax was a good one. They would have argued that it was fair that everybody paid the same.

Q6: "Change always means progress." Is this statement always true? Answer this question with reference to the introduction of the Poll Tax.

A6: People in the Middle Ages responded to the introduction of the poll tax in different ways. Those who benefited from this change in taxation probably saw it as an example of progress. However, those who found that they had to pay more tax because of this measure would not have agreed. As a large number of people living in the 14th century disapproved of the poll tax, it would be difficult to argue that this change in taxation was an example of progress.

Q7: Select sources from this unit that helps to explain why the poor hated having to pay taxes. What other types of sources might help you answer this question? Comment on the advantages and disadvantages of using the sources you have suggested.

A7: Sources 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12 all contain information on why the poor hated taxes. In source 4, John Wycliffe claimed that taxes sometimes resulted in poor people dying from starvation. As source 2 points out, people sometimes had to sell their property in order to pay their taxes. Some people died of starvation because they had been forced to sell their animals and farming equipment in order to pay their taxes. This unit shows how sources such as engravings, sermons and songs can provide information on why the poor hated paying taxes. Other sources that could be used include manuscript paintings, woodcuts, chronicles, letters, diaries, graffiti, poems and court records.
The main advantage of visual sources is that they can provide information on suffering caused by taxes and resistance to the imposition of taxes. Letters, diaries, sermons, poems, songs, chronicles would provide details on how the peasants reacted to the taxes. Most of these sources would be from the point of view of the rich and powerful. We only have a few sources written by the poor who had to pay these taxes. This would include songs sung by wandering minstrels and poems written by William Langland.