Monday, April 20, 2020

Aftermath: One--The Black Plague

Annamaria on Monday

Mostly, I imagine, what we have all been wondering is when will we go back to normal life.  We've had enough time to reflect and ruminate, so most of us have figured out for ourselves something many government leaders have taken too long to conclude: Any return to normalcy will have to be gradual and cautious.

Things may loosen up a bit before we have a vaccine for covid-19.  But not until we do will we be able to go about as we once did.  Normal, at that point, will be in flux.  Of this I am sure.  Our collective idea of what normal ought to be and our personal ideas of what we want it to be will have shifted.  

I have been trying to imagine that new normal.  I have no doubt that an event as far reaching and dramatic as this pandemic will result in change, probably not all for the good, but also not all for the bad.  So, as one of the resident historicals here on MIE,  I have been going back to history (what else would a nerd like me do) to try to inform my guesses.

Today let's start with the impact of the most drastic demographic disaster ever to hit the world - the Black Death.

It lasted from 1347 to 1453 and killed somewhere between seventeen and twenty-eight million Europeans before it finally petered out in the hinterlands of Russia.  It was more contagious and even deadlier than bubonic plague.  Some historians think it might have been a combination of bubonic, typhus, and anthrax.  Others think it was a particularly virulent strain of bubonic, just as covid-19 is a particularly virulent strain of corona virus. Regardless of the exact nature of the bug that brought it, it changed the medieval world.

Historians are still arguing about its exact long-term consequences, but we can use the trends of those days to postulate what might be ahead for our world.  “Foreseeable” is not word that can apply to right now.

Much of what I read to prepare for this blog was published during the H1-N1 and Ebola outbreaks.  Here is what I learned.

Like our current virus attack, the Black Death descended on the population when, in much of Europe, society in general had never had it so good—at least when it came to the necessities of life.  They had just come out of a long period of robust economic growth and concomitant innovation.  For them, the new technologies were long-distance commerce, manufacturing, and improvements in agriculture.  But thanks to this prosperity people in general were already becoming unhappy about their imperfect institutions and monetary imbalances.  The lords were extremely rich compared to the peasants, who were underpaid and knew it.  There were already murmurs of popular rebellion against the lopsided way society dished out its rewards, with the distribution so heavily skewed toward the aristocracy.  Sound familiar?

As we are seeing now with the current pandemic, death rates varied by region and by socio-economic group.  A great deal of the demographic damage stemmed from the recurrence of the epidemic.  The disease returned as many as thirty times between 1351 and 1485, so the population numbers did not have an opportunity to rebound before another attack.  This increased the severity of the social and economic consequences.

In England, somewhere between five and twenty-five percent of the aristocracy perished, but among the clergy forty-five to sixty percent. Forty to fifty percent died in France, eighty percent in Tuscany, sixty-six in Hamburg, and seventy in Bremen. Also as we have seen in 2020, people in cities were more likely to die.


As the virus returned from time to time, it took more of the young than the old.  Some historians attribute this to the recurrences.  Adults, they conclude, who had been exposed and survived previous bouts were less likely to take sick than children who had not had the opportunity to develop their own immunity.  That it took children certainly magnified its impact, both demographically and emotionally.  Population numbers did not return to the pre-plague levels for about a hundred years after the curse went away.  More men than women perished, but that seems always to be the case.  Some scholars, investigating in 2014, concluded that the Black Death took a greater toll among the elderly and those whose immune systems were already compromised. 

The aftermath was as dramatic as the event itself, if I can call something that went on for over a century an event.


The death rate depressed the labor pool.  So, after the plague hit, finding enough people to staff the farms became more difficult, which forced the lords to better compensate the peasants.  Before the plague, they might have gotten away with just giving the workers a share of the fruits of their own labors.  But afterwards they had to pay them in cash money.  And that gave the peasants much more economic freedom.  A plowman, who got 3s in 1349 could demand and get 10s in 1350.  Peasants also bargained for better working conditions and lightened workloads.  Pushback on the parts of the lords generally had no effect.   And recurrences of the fever solidified the change.  Before long, some farm workers could buy their own land.  The most successful of them were yeomen by the end of the century. 

The standard of living (of the living) went up.  With more wealth flowing to the lower levls of society came a demand for manufactured goods.  And with too much experience of death all around them, folks adopted an eat-drink-and-be-merry attitude.  

The plague emboldened the underclasses.  Their demands for a fair share picked up volume and speed.  To avoid a total upheaval, the ruling classes began to see the wisdom of resolving rather than ignoring or trying to suppress workers’ grievances. 

It occurred in increments, but the eventual upshot of the Black Death was world changing.  Feudalism gave way to capitalism.     

What came next was the Age of Enlightenment.


  1. Interesting perspective. Clearly the internet technology world will be a winner of the current pandemic. But surely there will be others. I think one of them may be education at least at a tertiary level.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I too think the availability of internet technology will be a big contributor to change in many fields. In a week or two I will start taking wild guesses and a lot of what I imagine stems from that. Stay tuned. Mostly, STAY SAFE!

  2. This kind of stuff is why I've always enjoyed reading science fiction. There's a large strain of "what would happen if THIS happened?" The answers are rarely spot-on, but always high-calorie food for thought. Obvious possibilities here are increased learning and working from home which, combined with a shift toward green energy can help us to fight climate change, and will also probably lead to some amount of migration out of city cores towards subburbs and further. We're already deep into online shopping, and that will only be increased by this. Adoption of bidets in the U.S., while not large, will doubtless increase. The possibilities are great, and many of those that will seem obvious in retrospect will prove hard to foresee.

    1. I don't know why, EvKa, but though I read science fiction voraciously as young woman, I don't much anymore. I think it's because I wouldn't have a prayer if I tried to write it. My first couple of decades out of college was a golden age of scifi, and I loved it. Predicting the future at this moment is asking for guffaws from the future, I know, but I am going to try. But only after I have looked carefully at the past. More of the history of aftermaths next week.

  3. The end of the First World War had a similar effect on the aristocracy in the UK. Not only were the peasants wiped out in huge numbers, but so was the flower of aristocratic youth as young officers in the trenches. Then the Spanish 'flu afterwards killed more than the war itself. We live in scary, scary times, Annamaria. Great blog, as always!

  4. I'm learning more about plagues in one week than I have in...well, let's just say my lifetime. And much of that has come from you. It will be interesting to follow your take on what the futures holds as I've just been asked to write a column for an Athens publication on how I believe the pandemic will change life as we know it. The one thing I'm sure won't change EvKa.