RC Practice with Explanation

Tips on how to approach CAT Reading Comprehension passages
  • Don’t get into the minor details of the passage; just focus on what each paragraph has to say
  • As you read, create a map of the passage; you must remember what thing is located where in the passage
  • Once you read the question, come back to the part of the passage that is likely to have the answer
  • Compare the options and eliminate the incorrect choices based on the evidence that you see in the passage
  • Choose the answer once you are convinced of the right choice


In August 1348 the bubonic plague, or Black Death, suddenly appeared in England. Its germs were carried by the fleas on black rats that came into the country on ships from abroad. The first outbreak of the plague was of intense ferocity, for the people had no immunity and persons living close to the margin of subsistence fell victims to the disease.

Returning in 1361, the plague caused high mortality among children born since 1348; there were other visitations in 1368 and 1375. The best estimates place the population of England (exclusive of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) at about 1.1 million in 1086, about 3.7 million in 1348, about 2.2 million in 1377, and not much more than that in 1450. High farming in the thirteenth century had been based on the scarcity of land, a large population, and a great demand for food—conditions that had forced the peasants to remain on their holdings and to accept the burdens of serfdom. But when the demand for food was less, the profits of agriculture shrank. High farming, which had already been slipping before 1348, came to an end.

The startling fact about those figures is the amazing drop in population between 1348 and 1377. It may be the number of people in overcrowded England already was beginning to decline before the coming of the Black Death. There were floods and famines in the years between 1315 and 1317. Certainly the plague caused a high mortality. In some monasteries the monks all but disappeared (it is thought that half the clergy in England fell victims to the pestilence). The Black Death had its most striking effect on the rural economy. The balance between the number of laborers and the amount of land under cultivation and the relations between lord and peasant were quickly altered. There were deserted villages and many unoccupied peasant holdings. After the first visitation widows and widowers remarried quickly and produced as many children as before; but because of the high mortality among young people this population increase was not maintained later in the century.

The work of the manor could not be performed by the villeins who had survived the plague; the lord had to employ casual labor at wages that doubled within a decade. Moreover, a villein, once tied to his holding by economic necessity, could easily run away to another manor where employment would be offered to him with no questions asked.

Landowners complained bitterly of the labor shortage and of the wages they had to pay. In 1351 they obtained the Statute of Laborers, which fixed wages at the rates before the plague, declared that all landless men must accept work when it was offered to them, and prohibited peasants from moving from one manor to another. For a time the statute had some effect, but in the long run it was useless, for wages continued to rise and employers had to pay them. There was also a scarcity of tenants. Few manors were without vacant holdings; hence the yield was less and income from the land declined. Agricultural products no longer fetched high prices. Yet the cost of luxuries and of manufactured goods was rising.

Thereafter the plague subsided in the rural areas but remained endemic in London and other towns, where it could become active at any time and could spread along lines of communication into the country. It remained in England for more than 300 years.

Question: Which of the following was NOT a contributing factor in the dependence of the peasantry on high farming as a means of subsistence?
[A] A large population
[B] A widespread outbreak of plague
[C] A great demand for food
[D] A scarcity of land
Option (B)

Go back to 2, where high farming is mentioned. While three of the factors are mentioned as factors, (B) conflicts with the author’s argument that the plague reduced dependence on high farming.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. This is mentioned immediately after the introduction of high farming.

(C): Opposite. As above.

(D): Opposite. As above.

Question: Look back on the arguments made by the author. Which of the following statements is supported within the passage?
[A] In the long run, the Statute of Laborers was useful in slowing the inflationary pressure on wages.
[B] The plague continued to trouble England sporadically until the end of the seventeenth century.
[C] The demand for food stayed roughly equivalent after the first attack of plague.
[D] It was difficult to break an obligation to one landowner in the wake of the plague.
Option (B)

An inference question; keep an eye out for an answer choice that fits closely with something mentioned in the passage. (B) simply restates the dates from s1 and 6: If the plagues started in 1348 and lasted for more than 300 years, then they continued until the end of the seventeenth century.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. This contradicts the author’s point in 5 that “in the long run the statute was useless.”

(C): Opposite. This is the opposite of the author’s point in 2 that after the plague the demand for food went down drastically.

(D): Opposite. The author argues in 4 that it was easy to run away to other landowners with “no questions asked.”

Strategy Point:

The MCAT will often base questions on dates; don’t take them for granted!

Question: According to information brought forth by the author in the passage, the economic difficulties brought on by the Black Death were not quickly resolved because:
[A] potential workers were afraid to leave their homes due to the fear of contracting disease.
[B] population gains that might have been made by remarriages were offset by a high infant mortality rate.
[C] many landholdings were left unoccupied, often without recourse.
[D] the Statute of Laborers fixed wages at the pre-plague levels.
Option (B)

This question asks you to get to the root of the problem caused by the plague. The economic difficulties are attributed in the passage to a labor shortage. According to 3, this labor shortage lingered because of high infant mortality.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Out of Scope. The author never discussed people’s fears of leaving the home (and in fact 4 describes a good deal of movement).

(C): Faulty Use of Detail. This is an effect, not a root cause of the economic difficulty. Landholdings could not be filled without more workers.

(D): Opposite. The Statute’s effects are discussed in the passage as being negligible.

Question: Of the many economic effects brought about by repeated attacks of plague, the author considers which of the following the most important?
[A] The great demand for food and conversely, the shortage of arable land
[B] The vacancies incurred by landowners due to the plague
[C] The introduction of wage controls in a rapidly fluctuating economy
[D] The alteration of the relationship between landowner and land-worker
Option (D)

What point is the author trying to make in the paragraphs dealing with economics? The overall thrust is that the relationship between landowners and peasants changed when the number of available workers decreased. Since the author spends the most time talking about this change in the relationship, it’s safe to assume that this is the most important factor.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. The author argues that demand for food was decreased because the population was less.

(B): Faulty Use of Detail. While the author does consider this to be a factor in the economic equation, it’s not the main effect of the plague, but rather a secondary effect of the low population and changing relationships.

(C): Faulty Use of Detail. As above, this is another secondary effect of the main one: loss of population and changing landowner-peasant relationships.

Question: Which of the following claims would, if true, most substantially weaken the author’s claim that the plague brought an end to the practice of high farming?
[A] The practice of high farming was reinforced after the floods and famines in the 1310s reduced the amount of arable land.
[B] Immediately following the plague, the profits of agriculture would see a rebound due to the stabilization in wages and food prices.
[C] The numbers of peasants working on English farms decreased throughout much of the years of plague.
[D] The Statute of Laborers began to be strictly enforced when it became apparent that wages were still rising.
Option (B)

Go back to 2 to review the author’s argument that the plague ended high farming. The author argues that the peasantry depended on this sort of farming for subsistence and in 5 implies that landowners had previously taken high profits from the practice. If (B) is true, the second point, made in the last sentences of the passage, is directly contradicted: there would have been fewer reasons for high farming to collapse, and the author’s argument would therefore be weakened.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Out of Scope. Even if this were true, it would have no effect on the plague since it occurred several decades before the plague occurred.

(C): Out of Scope. Is incorrect because the population decrease is one of the author’s supporting pieces of evidence for the central argument.

(D): Out of Scope. Even if this is true, it has no impact on the fact that the plague brought an end to high farming. This is an effect of the plague’s impact on high farming, not a fundamental piece of evidence supporting or refuting it.

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