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  • William Tyler

Black Death 1348/49

In an earlier blog I made mention of The Black Death, and, in that connection, the work of the American historian and biologist, Walter Scheidel. He addresses the question of The Black Death in one of the chapters of his book, 'The Great Leveler' (sic). The book as a whole explore the thesis that after violent episodes in history, including pandemics, society becomes more equal or, at least, less unequal.


Scheidel is a fantastic academic and thinker but do not expect an easy read or even a short read from any of his books. But perseverance pays off. My tip is not to read every word religiously, a terrible habit of lawyers like me, but to skip read.


Basing the following remarks on that chapter in Scheidel's work, here is my take (all errors are mine; you will have to read Scheidel for yourself to judge whether I have represented his arguments correctly!):-


He begins his chapter by referring back to Malthus' writings about population in 1798. Malthus argues that population expansion is the normal course of things and always outstrips resources, thus leading to inequalities in society. Yet when a pandemic, say, hits, and people die, the resources more closely match the new population figures. The outcome being a more equal society, or at least, a less unequal one.


Scheidel applies this argument to the global pandemic of The Black Death in the mid 14th century. He argues that in such a pandemic and horrendous loss of life (in England anything between a third and a half of the population died) then the price of land declines and the cost of wages rises. Making the rich less rich and the poor less poor.


Scheidel quotes a number of contemporary or near contemporary sources; For example,

1. William Dene of Rochester Priory, ' 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' . Post Covid 19, there may well be an unstoppable demand to pay nurses, supermarket cashiers, and other 'key workers' increased wages. There may also be a demand for more WFH options to be made available by employers.

2. Henry Knighton, Canon of Leicester, 'the workers were so above themselves and so bloody-minded that they took no notice [of legislation such as The Statute of Labourers of 1351 which sought to restore wages to pre Black Death levels] If anyone wished to hire them they had to submit to their demands,,,' Hopefully, the Government will learn the lesson of history.


One social example of change, post 1349, was the Government's forced abolition of many Sumptuary Laws [ie those laws which restricted the wearing of certain clothes to the elite]

Most significant here was the acceptance that fur could now be worn by almost all in society, except the very poorest. Fur, of course, was a much valued clothing material in an age before sufficient heating in winter.


Perhaps the biggest impact in England, and the longest lasting, was political. The view grew that Hodge was as good as his Master. This erupted in working class rebellion in The Peasants Revolt of 1381, after the Government of Richard II sought to recoup tax losses, caused by The Black Death, with the introduction of The Poll Tax. The English peasantry had the advantage of being able to refer back historically to Magna Carta, and the long road to modern democracy was begun, despite brutal repression of the Revolt itself. Many commentators have thought for a while now that the British political system and the constitution is in urgent need of reform.. There has been hope amongst some that Brexit would trigger such reform, but maybe Covid 19 will prove the catalyst.


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