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How the Black Death Changed the World

In just a few years, the Black Death wiped out more than one third of Europe's population. The world it left behind offered new possibilities for peasants and workers to resist their masters.

The Black Death was the greatest calamity ever to have struck Europe, more lethal by far than the destructive wars of the twentieth century. In the space of a few years, the mysterious plague wiped out as much as a third of the European population.

Historians coined the term “Black Death” long after the great catastrophe had subsided. Most scholars today believe it was a form of bubonic plague, although that remains a point of contention. Whatever biological agent caused the pandemic, it spread from Central Asia to Europe and the Middle East in the 1340s, helped along by the gigantic trading zone that the Mongol conquests had forged during the previous century — a precocious form of microbial globalisation.

This tidal wave of disease struck a population already weakened by the famine of 1315–22, the worst Europe had known for a thousand years. It kept on resurging after the initial plague of 1347–51: England alone suffered thirty-one outbreaks between 1348 and 1485. The Black Death affected every part of the continent, from the largest cities to isolated rural hamlets. Even the Norse colonies in Greenland fell victim to its lethal spread.

From Mass Death to Class Struggle

Population levels didn’t recover for centuries. According to one estimate, England and Wales had a population of 5.75 million in 1300, but just 3 million a century later; Italy’s population dropped from 12.5 to 8 million across the same period, and it had only risen to 9 million by 1500.

Understandably, many of those who lived through the Black Death without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge feared it was the end of the world. It was certainly the end of the world as they knew it: as William Chester Jordan has written, the great plague sounded “the death knell of medieval European civilisation.”

But if you were lucky enough to survive, the Black Death had the perverse effect of improving social conditions for the classes who made up the vast bulk of Europe’s population: farmers, artisans, and labourers. Wages were higher, rents were lower, and employers had to compete for workers instead of dictating terms. There was even an upsurge of social revolt in the late fourteenth century that far surpassed anything known before the plague. The aristocrats who dominated European society must have felt as if the world was ending for a second time.

That’s certainly the impression conveyed by the written records of the time, full of complaints about the lazy, insubordinate attitude of the people whose labour sustained Europe’s aristocracy.

One English chronicler suggested that workers were exploiting their newfound bargaining power after the sharp decline in population: “Such a shortage of labourers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent for triple wages.” The Italian historian Matteo Villani described a similar picture in his native Florence: “The common people, by reason of the abundance and superfluity that they found, would no longer work at their accustomed trades; they wanted the dearest and most delicate foods.”

The poet John Gower, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, elevated such upper-class grumbling to the status of an art form:

So goes the world from bad to worse when they who guard the sheep or the herdsmen in their places, demand to be rewarded more for their labour than the master-bailiff used to be. And on the other hand it may be seen that whatever the work may be, the labourer is so expensive that whoever wants anything done must pay five or six shillings for what formerly cost two.

Gower looked back fondly on the days of yore, when his social inferiors had known their place:

The labourers of olden times were not accustomed to eat wheat bread; their bread was made of beans and of other corn, and their drink was water. Then cheese and milk were as a feast to them; rarely had they any other feast than this. Their clothing was plain grey. Then was the world of such folk well-ordered in its estate.

According to the medieval historian John Hatcher, Gower’s complaints, while unusually eloquent, were “broadly representative of observations contained in the literature, chronicles and sermons of their age.”

Hatcher quotes from a 1363 English statute that raged against the sartorial extravagance of the lower orders, whose “outrageous and excessive apparel” was unbecoming for people of “their estate and degree.” The chronicler Henry Knighton believed it was high time for state intervention in this field, as “one person cannot be discerned from another in splendour of dress or belongings.”

No Notice of the King’s Command

That was by no means the only time that the upper classes of Western Europe tried to deploy the law in defense of social hierarchy. The Ordinance of Labourers passed by the English crown in 1349 is the most famous example. It instructed every man and woman below the age of sixty who didn’t have a trade or land of their own to accept whatever employment they were offered, for a wage not exceeding the standard rate in 1346: “If anyone takes more, let him be committed to gaol.”

Two years later came another statute, which complained that labourers were still displaying “exceptional greed” and refusing to work “unless they are paid livery and wages double or treble what they were accustomed to receive” before the plague — an attitude that redounded “to the great damage of the great men.”

A similar French law from 1354 claimed that labourers would only work when it pleased them, “spending the rest of their time in taverns playing games and enjoying themselves.” According to a 1348 Florentine decree, action of some kind was necessary because “while many citizens had suddenly become the poor, the poor had become rich.”

The content of such laws varied from one country or city to the next, but a common theme ran through them all: a desire to control the terms on which workers were hired, for the benefit of “great men.” As Samuel Cohn noted in a summary of post-plague labour legislation: “With few exceptions and seemingly independent of each other, the plague spurred governments across Europe suddenly to see a need to regulate wages and fix prices with a zeal, territorial scale, and meticulousness missing from any state’s legislation before 1348.”

Henry Knighton later complained that these efforts were to no avail, in England at any rate:

The workers were so above themselves and so bloody-minded that they took no notice of the king’s command. If anyone wished to hire them he had to submit to their demands, for either his fruit and standing corn would be lost or he had to pander to the arrogance and greed of the workers.

Spreading the Wealth Around

Of course, we shouldn’t necessarily take these complaints at face value. There’s a long history of rich spokesmen bemoaning the outrageous demands of the people who work for them, no matter how modest those demands might be. Feudal lords were just as likely to indulge in self-pity about their fortunes as today’s capitalists. Cohn argues that the initial batch of coercive labour laws came before there had been any significant increase in wages, at a time when workers who had survived the plague were scrambling to catch up with price inflation.

However, there was a real shift during the decades that followed the pandemic. In his book The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel describes a general picture of reduced inequality in Western Europe, based on the latest findings of economic historians:

The nobility faced crisis as the value of the agricultural products of their estates dropped and the wages of those who made them rose. As tenants were carried off by disease, landowners had to hire more wage labourers to farm, in return for better pay. Those still employed as tenants enjoyed longer terms of contract and lower rents. Society experienced a wholesale reversal of the earlier trend that had made the landlord class stronger and richer and most people poorer: now it was the other way around as the elite captured less of the surplus and others received more for about a century and a half.

John Hatcher studied the impact of the Black Death on wages in England and found that the king’s legislation proved largely impotent against demands for higher pay: “At Knightsbridge even the carpenter who made the stocks with which to imprison those workers who refused to swear obedience to the Statute of Labourers was paid at the illegal rate of five and a half pence per day.” Employers often got around the laws by making payments in kind to their workers in place of money wages.

Wave of Revolt

These struggles over the division of wealth were fought by individuals, not collectives, voting with their feet as they sought the best deal. But there was also a wave of social revolt in Western Europe after the plague had struck. Samuel Cohn tracks the progress of this wave in his book Lust for Liberty. He makes three striking observations about its general character.

First of all, revolts were far more common after the Black Death than they had been before it. In the initial years of the outbreak, there were hardly any examples of social protest. People who had been traumatised by the death toll were more likely to join extreme religious sects, such as the flagellants who became a familiar sight in many European cities, or to lash out at vulnerable scapegoats, especially Jews. But that had started to change by the mid-1350s.

In his sample, drawn from France, Italy, and Flanders, Cohn documented 470 revolts between 1200 and 1348, or 2.7 per year; from 1348 until 1425, there were 621, or 8 per year: “If the years 1354–1383 are compared with the pre-plague period, the increase is higher: 300 revolts, or 10 per annum.” Cohn’s book doesn’t look at the English experience directly, but the late fourteenth century also saw the greatest challenge to aristocratic rule in medieval England, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Second, while most of the revolts before 1348 were religious, or at least had strong religious overtones, such motivations were largely absent during the century that followed, and clerics played a much smaller role. Third, there was a striking post-plague convergence between movements north and south of the Alps, which had previously been developing along very different lines.

Cohn could find no evidence of “joint organisation or communication linking such distant insurgents,” something that would have been extraordinarily difficult before the mass production of books, pamphlets, and newspapers was possible. But the social consequences of the plague provoked uncannily similar reactions from people who could never have communicated with one another directly.

It seems as if the Black Death played a role in medieval Europe that was analogous to the great modern crises of capitalism. The European economy of the late Middle Ages was far more complex and interconnected than it had been a few centuries earlier. However, it was still dominated by subsistence agriculture, and it lacked the feedback mechanisms of trade and investment that can now spread a recession around the world in months, weeks, or even days. It took a biological crisis of European society to trigger a series of popular rebellions, from the French Jacquerie of 1358 to the Florentine Ciompi Revolt twenty years later, when the city’s weavers briefly seized power.

According to Cohn, these revolts shouldn’t be seen simply as the result of labour scarcity or attempts by Europe’s rulers to levy new taxes, important as these factors were:

By 1355 a new spirit for societal change and a desire for liberty had sunk deep roots beneath the bourgeois or popolo, the class that, along with the nobility, had defined liberties as special corporate privileges since the central Middle Ages.

There was a new feeling of self-confidence among the lower orders, a sense that “commoners could change their social, economic and political worlds, the here and now, in concrete and practical ways.”

The French monk Michel Pintoin described the spirit of the age as he perceived it from a bitterly hostile perspective: “The appetite for liberty was burning . . . the lust for new things incessant.” A trace of that spirit has come down to us in the saying attributed to John Ball, a leader of the English Peasants’ Revolt: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

New and Old Worlds

Western Europe’s ruling classes defeated the revolts of the late fourteenth century, often with pitiless brutality. The French nobility answered the Jacquerie of 1358 with a bloody massacre of at least twenty thousand peasants. In England, people like John Ball were hung, drawn, and quartered for their defiance of the aristocratic order.

The struggle of the Tuchins in southern France lasted for two decades before the royal authorities brought them to heel. A remission granted to the people of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Beaucaire in return for a huge fine gives a sense of how troublesome this uprising was for the French monarchy. The text of the remission accused the local inhabitants of

forming unions, conspiring, plotting, giving advice, forming cells, revolting, behaving abusively, engaging in acts of arson, murder, capturing, imprisoning, drowning and hanging royal officers, soldiers, and others of our subjects, breaking and mangling their limbs, creating blockades, engaging in war, invading, capturing castles, villages and our forts.

The fear of provoking another rebellion may have discouraged kings and lords from imposing new taxes or feudal burdens on the peasantry. But it was beyond the capacity of peasants and artisans to seize power for any length of time and impose a wholesale transformation of European society. It would be centuries before Europe experienced that kind of revolution.

The experience of Western Europe wasn’t universal, either. Further east, in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Prussia, the nobility responded to the crisis of feudalism by clamping down hard on their peasants, in what became known as the “second serfdom.” Walter Scheidel documents a similar outcome in Egypt, where wages initially rose before the Mamluk ruling class forcibly restored the balance of exploitation:

Even the most devastating epidemics cannot by themselves equalise the distribution of wealth or income. Institutional arrangements were capable of blunting the force of demographic shocks, manipulating labour markets by coercive means. One form of violence could be offset by another: if microbial assaults were met with sufficient human force to suppress bargaining, elites were able to maintain or quickly restore high levels of inequality.

Historians still debate the role of the Black Death in shaping Western Europe’s great transition from feudalism to capitalism. Whether it accelerated trends that were already in motion or shifted development onto a different path altogether, the pandemic certainly formed part of the social matrix out of which modern capitalism emerged, especially in the English countryside.

David Herlihy argued that the shortage of workers encouraged labour-saving technological innovations, from the printing press to bigger ships that required fewer sailors. By the end of the fifteenth century, the monarchies of Western Europe had started to bounce back. The conquest of the Americas opened up a new field of predatory exploitation: the European colonists brought with them a panoply of diseases that were even more devastating for the indigenous peoples than the Black Death had been for Europe. In Europe itself, the Reformation triggered a new age of religious conflict, overshadowing the social revolts of the late medieval period.

It was left to future generations of radicals to rediscover that history as a source of inspiration, in a world that had been transformed beyond recognition. In the 1880s, the great Victorian socialist William Morris composed his work A Dream of John Ball, in which he imagined an encounter with the most eloquent spokesman for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Morris regretfully explained to Ball that England was still ruled by a class that lived off the labour of others, despite the passage of five centuries: “Mastership hath many shifts whereby it striveth to keep itself alive in the world.”