The Black Death led to the demise of feudalism. Could this pandemic have a similar effect?

We’ve been here before: a pandemic, inequality, economic stagnation and climate change brought down Medieval Europe

Published April 26, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Nurse holding up fist in protest | Plague Doctor illustration (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Nurse holding up fist in protest | Plague Doctor illustration (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

In predicting the future, we often turn to our past experiences. Humanity has, after all, faced pandemics like this one before — many times, in fact — and few are as memorable and menacing as the Black Death. Arriving in Italy in AD 1347, the Black Death, now believed to be the bubonic plague, rapidly spread throughout Medieval Europe, wiping out between one-third and one-half of the entire European population.

The people of Medieval Europe were not unaccustomed to suffering, but this was unprecedented. Death would come within days or even hours of showing symptoms, and for those who fell ill, the mortality rate was probably upwards of 60%. Panic spread even faster, and the most sacred bonds of society began to unravel. Medieval chroniclers tell us of priests abandoning their flock, parents abandoning their children, husbands their wives, and vice versa — anything to escape the contagion. In some areas, Jewish communities were blamed and viciously attacked, while in others, throngs of penitent Christians publicly whipped themselves in imitation of Christ. For many, it was the end of the world.

What's often missing from this story, however, is the wider context and the lasting impact of the Black Death. This is a story not only of unfathomable tragedy, but also of transformation and rebirth. The plague, in combination with a host of other related and overlapping crises, delivered a death blow to Medieval Europe, ushering in a new age — the Renaissance and the rise of so-called agrarian capitalism — and ultimately setting the stage for the Industrial Revolution and the modern world. And the calamitous 14th century is not as far removed from our own experience as we would like to think.

Europe at the end of the 13th century was not so different from Europe today. Since the Second World War, we have experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth, and so it was for Medieval Europe on the eve of the Black Death. From AD 1000, Europe's population doubled or even tripled, and the economy became increasingly commercialized, underwritten by an increasingly sophisticated financial system, as new cities and towns emerged, universities were founded across the continent, and the magnificent Gothic cathedrals surpassed the Great Pyramid at Giza as the tallest man-made structures in the world.

But like the modern world, there were cracks in the façade — warning signs that the social and economic foundations of Medieval Europe were not as solid as they appeared. As the population grew, increasingly marginal land was turned over to agriculture, with diminishing returns, resulting in lower yields per capita and pushing the population dangerously close to subsistence levels. This left little slack in the economy to absorb a significant shock, and the 14th century would soon bring one shock after another.

First and foremost, the climate was changing. Sound familiar? Medieval Europe benefitted from several centuries of warmer weather, which boosted crop yields, but by the 14th century, the world was entering the so-called Little Ice Age. The changes were relatively minor when compared with our own climate crisis, but the impact was significant. Cooler and wetter weather depressed agricultural yields, at a time when there was already very little slack in the food supply. This contributed to a broader economic slowdown, as yields declined and prices rose, but it also brought Europe to the edge of famine.

Then, beginning in 1311, Europe began to experience a series of crop failures across the continent in what became known as the Great Famine. Reaching a peak in northern Europe in 1315-1317, the Great Famine may have killed 5 to 10% of Europe's population, less than a generation before the Black Death arrived in 1347.

At the same time, Europe entered a prolonged period of heightened geopolitical conflict, during which a dizzying array of kingdoms, principalities, sultanates and city-states waged innumerable wars, both large and small. Chief among these, in terms of social and economic impact, were the ongoing hostilities between England and France, culminating in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), and the fall of Acre in 1291, the last remaining crusader city in the Levant, which prompted a papal ban on trade with the Mamluk Sultanate. These conflicts inhibited trade between northern and southern Europe and between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, further slowing the European economy and incurring a massive fiscal burden that would soon ruin the European financial system and provoke uprisings in both France and England.

Northern Italy was the heart of the financial system at this time, and a small number of very large Italian banks, often referred to as "super-companies," were lending huge sums of money across Europe. As was the case in the 2008 financial crisis, few banks actually had the cash recorded in their ledgers. All available money was loaned out or tied up in investments, leaving the banks severely under-capitalized and vulnerable to insolvency in the event of a sudden large withdraw or a major default on their loans.

Both of these eventualities soon came to pass, triggering cascading failures across the financial system. First, war broke out between England and France in 1294, prompting King Edward I to withdraw huge sums of money from the Riccardi of Lucca, approximately equivalent to several billion dollars today. The Riccardi simply did not have the money, and Edward seized whatever assets he could. Then, over the following decades, three more super banks, the Frescobaldi, the Bardi and the Peruzzi, all of Florence, were each ruined by successive English kings who refused to pay their debts. Most spectacularly, Edward III defaulted on billions of dollars-worth of loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi, triggering a run on Florentine banks in the 1340s, setting off an international debt crisis and effectively ending public borrowing for the English crown. This was now less than a decade before the onset of the Black Death.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, the cultural and epistemological bedrock of Medieval Europe, was facing the most significant legitimacy crisis in centuries. The ambitious King Philip IV of France, who also played a central role in the credit crisis of 1294, was embroiled in a high-stakes tit-for-tat with Pope Boniface VIII when the King's men attempted to arrest the elderly Pope, inadvertently killing him. Shortly thereafter, in 1305, a Frenchman, Clement V, was chosen to be the next pope, and the papacy was relocated to Avignon, France. This understandably cast a long shadow over the Holy See, and the Avignon Popes were widely disliked and distrusted. The crisis only deepened in 1378 when a second pope was elected in Rome and a third pope was briefly elected in 1409 before all three were deposed in 1417.

We might compare this crisis of faith with the current legitimacy crisis of science in the United States. Like the scientific method, the Church was a shared way of knowing — a pathway to common understanding, which was essential to the social order of Medieval Europe.

It was in the midst of this spiritual, economic and geopolitical crisis that the Black Death arrived, sweeping through Europe in 1347-1353 and upending the balance of power, almost overnight. The psychological effects are difficult to identify with any certainty, precisely because so many other calamities were already tearing at the medieval subconscious, but the economic effects of the plague were nothing short of earthshattering. By killing perhaps 50% of the labor force, the Black Death drastically altered the supply of labor, land and coin. Wages skyrocketed, as labor was in short supply, and rents declined, as the plummeting population density created a surplus of land. Both of these developments substantially benefitted commoners, at the expense of the elite, particularly in England.

To understand why, it's important to understand the structure of the medieval economy. Past societies are never as simple or homogenous as we make them out to be. But by and large, Medieval Europe operated on a feudal or manorial system, in which most of the rural population was essentially servile, owing rent and/or services to aristocratic landowners in exchange for the use of their land. Peasants could have myriad different statuses, but in general, the archetypal serf was legally bound to their lord — although they could buy their freedom (or run away). Serfs worked the lord's fields (called the demesne), and in exchange, the serf was given a home and their own plot of agricultural land, from which they could eke out a living.

The archetypal serf was not paid for their work in the lord's fields — that was their obligation to the lord in exchange for the use of the lord's land. The modern equivalent would be if your landlord was also your boss, and in order to live in your apartment, you had to sign away your freedom and that of your children, in perpetuity. Not only that, the medieval lord was also the primary unit of legal, civic and military power, often serving as the first stop for legal matters and the first defense against brigands and rival kingdoms.

In the wake of the Black Death, however, the shortage of labor and the abundance of land empowered peasants to negotiate better terms with their lord, and the lord, with no one to work his fields, was in no place to refuse. This was especially the case in England, where the aristocracy was more dependent on the cultivation of the demesne. With perhaps half the population gone, there were simply not enough peasants to work the land, and the average income of the English lord declined significantly. In response, the lord's wheat fields were increasingly turned over to livestock, or rented out to tenant farmers, who would pay the lord a fixed rent, keeping the agricultural produce for themselves.

The ambitious commoner could now acquire sizable tracts of land, and with the agricultural product of that land entirely at their disposal, commoners were incentivized to maximize the productivity of their land and sell the surplus at market for a profit. This transition is often referred to as the birth of Agrarian Capitalism.

Urban laborers and craftsmen also benefitted from rising wages. The average lifespan increased, and standards of living improved across the board. The shortage of skilled tradesmen even created new opportunities for urban women: the widows of merchants and craftsmen were encouraged to run their husbands' businesses, and the number of female apprentices in London increased significantly at this time.

The aristocracy, however, were predictably appalled by the newfound power of the common rabble, and the elite sought to maintain their position by imposing artificially low wages and by compelling laborers to accept any available work. Sumptuary laws, which restricted what commoners could wear and eat, also became common during the 14th and 15th Centuries. However, these laws do not appear to have been effective, and tensions continued to mount between the aristocracy and the wider populace, who were increasingly impatient for change.

This, combined with the soaring fiscal burden of near-constant war, set off a series of uprisings, most notably the French Jacquerie of 1358 and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The aristocracy responded with force wherever they could, but they could not turn back the clock.

Even in war, their role was changing. While the medieval lord was renting out his fields, the knight was increasingly losing his place on the battlefield. This was, in theory, the primary purpose of the secular aristocracy: to be professional killers, to defend the realm and to protect the clergy and the peasantry. But starting in the 14th century, infantry units comprised of commoners, like the Swiss pikemen and English longbowmen, began to win a series of decisive victories against mounted knights, revolutionizing military tactics and hastening the obsolescence of the feudal aristocracy.

All the while, a new intellectual spirit was taking root across western Europe. Influential thinkers like John Wycliffe and Marsilius of Padua began to question the worldly authority of both the Church and the state, arguing that power rested ultimately with the populace rather than the ruler, and the unworthy ruler could lose their right to govern. Writers and philosophers were increasingly concerned with the here and now, the individual and the observable, rather than the abstract and the universal. The works of Chaucer, Petrarch and Christine de Pizan celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, savoring the moment and often drawing attention to the messiness of the human experience. William of Ockham directly challenged the tedious abstraction of medieval philosophy, famously advocating for more efficient and rigorous reasoning à la Ockham's Razor.

A new confidence in scientific thought began to blossom, as precocious scholars like Nicole Oresme and Jean Buridan postulated the rotation of the earth and the law of inertia, more than a century before Copernicus and Isaac Newton. In the wake of the Black Death, plague doctors were among the first to believe they had surpassed the knowledge of the Greek and Roman world; ironically, they were wrong, but the lower mortality of later outbreaks led many doctors to proclaim they had cured the disease, which instilled a new faith in scientific progress. This was the beginning of a paradigm shift, the repercussions of which have shaped our modern world, and the calamitous 14th century was the crucible through which this new paradigm came into being.

Now, seven-hundred years later, what, if anything, can we learn from this — what can the crises and consequences of the 14th century tell us about our own pandemic and the impending aftermath? On the one hand, the current pandemic pales in comparison to the Black Death. The Black Death killed at least 30% of Medieval Europe, whereas the new coronavirus is unlikely to kill more than 0.03% of the US population. There will be no labor shortage in the wake of the coronavirus; quite the opposite, there will likely be a labor surplus, due to the ensuing economic contraction. As for rents, the housing market is essentially frozen as people shelter in place, and housing prices are likely to decline in a recession, but the real cost of housing relative to income is unlikely to see the kind of seismic shift experienced after the Black Death.

However, if we take a wider view, there is more to the late medieval crisis than a shortage of labor and a surplus of land. The devastation of the Black Death may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but Medieval Europe was already on course for social and economic upheaval. As is the case today, great-power conflict was brewing, and with large parts of France already under English control, the eventual showdown between England and France was probably inevitable. Inequality was also a source of stagnation and tension well before the Black Death, as the European economy was becoming increasingly commercialized, a new urban middle class was emerging, and the role of the aristocracy in war, in economic production, and in civic life was shifting. But most significantly, and most presciently for our own time, Europe was headed for a climate catastrophe, and regardless of the Black Death, the continent would have almost certainly faced a series of demographic shocks, like the Great Plague, until considerable changes were made to the existing socio-economic system.

The lesson we should take from this today is not the differences between the coronavirus and the Black Death, but rather the broader similarities between the 14th century and the 21st century. As we emerge from our makeshift bunkers — thankful and perhaps overly confident from averting a worst-case scenario — war between China and the US still looms ever larger, socio-economic inequality is reaching record levels, trust in institutions and our established epistemology is waning, and as we enter the worst depression since the 1930s, climate change once again threatens to throw us back into the Middle Ages. The coronavirus has exposed deep fissures in our society, but it has not been severe enough to force us to address these problems. We may feel as though we dodged a bullet, but if we continue business as usual, what happens next is likely to be much worse. The calamitous 21st century is just getting started, and a more apt parallel for the Black Death is probably yet to come.

By Adam McBride

Adam McBride is a medieval archaeologist (PhD Oxford), campaign staffer, and policy advisor. 

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