What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How Covid Will Change Politics
“The effects of mass death on the economic fortunes of workers were profound. On the eve of the Black Death, Europe was characterized by feudalism, a hierarchical social and economic system with military aristocrats (and the clergy) at the top and a large mass of peasant laborers at the bottom. Because the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, the elite’s capital was held almost exclusively as land. Peasants were tied to this land through a highly exploitative system of forced labor called serfdom, which demanded the uncompensated provision of labor and greatly restricted workers’ mobility.
The demographic collapse wrought by the Black Death was a fundamental shock to this system — at least it was in the areas where the toll of the plague was high. The basic laws of supply and demand explain why. In areas where the plague hit hard, it decimated the labor force. At the same time, the disease left the upper classes’ main capital asset, land, completely untouched. Thus, one factor of economic production, labor, suddenly became scarce and expensive, while the other, land, became abundant and cheap. The result was a massive increase in peasants’ bargaining power. Thus, workers were able to demand better working conditions, improve their access to land and, given the challenges elites faced in policing their movement, migrate to the cities. In the years immediately following the Black Death, serfdom collapsed and was replaced by a wage economy based on free labor.
Yet this reaction to the Black Death did not take place across the whole of Europe. Although much of Western Europe (including some western areas of what we now think of as Germany) suffered from the plague with particularly high intensity, leading to those massive changes to the bargaining power of labor, Eastern Europe, which was less exposed to trade and had sparser human settlement, saw significantly less death. Consequently, in the eastern parts of Europe, including the east of German-speaking Central Europe, the system of serfdom persisted for centuries longer than it did in the West.
These differences in labor freedom had important consequences for local politics and institutions. We find that areas of Central Europe that experienced high mortality from the Black Death — leading to an early end for serfdom — developed more inclusive political institutions at the local level, such as the use of elections to select city councils. These changes initially resulted from shifts in the organization of agriculture. In areas where the Black Death hit hard, elites were forced to decentralize much of the everyday control over agricultural management to the peasants themselves. This created a local need for coordination, since agricultural production at the village-level could only be successful if peasants agreed on the crops to be harvested and the division of labor in the agricultural round. As a consequence of these early experiences with self-governance, peasant villages began to demand the right to elect their own officials. Over time, this led to wider and wider participation in collective self-governance at the local level. Such experiences fostered a lasting culture of civic engagement and cooperation that proved essential for safeguarding the freedoms of laborers from future attempts by elites to roll back the gains won in the wake of the Black Death.”