The Consequences of Plagues and Pandemics (part 1)

The Consequences of Plagues and Pandemics (part 1) November 23, 2021

The Bubonic Plague, also known as the “Black Death,” wiped out nearly half the population of 14th century Europe.  That is the bad news.  But the plague was also a major factor in the rise of economic and political freedom.

In fact, a study by Daniel W. Gingerich and Jan P. Vogler of the University of Virginia found that the areas that were hardest hit by the Black Death became more democratic than areas with fewer casualties, an effect that was discernible centuries later.

Their findings are published in an article entitled Pandemics and Political Development: The Electoral Legacy of the Black Death in Germany, in the online academic journal World Politics.  They also published an article on their research for general readers at Politico entitled What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How Covid Will Change Politics.

Before the plague, the researchers say, the socio-economic structure of medieval Europe consisted of a feudal elite that owned the land, which was worked by peasants tied to the land in a system of serfdom.  When the plague killed much of the labor force, the surviving peasants were in such demand that they could command better working conditions, the right to move to better opportunities, and, crucially, compensation in money, rather than just a share of the produce.  “In the years immediately following the Black Death,” the authors write, “serfdom collapsed and was replaced by a wage economy based on free labor.”

Meanwhile, power was decentralized because the elite was also devastated by the plague.  Peasants had to co-ordinate with each other to plan the work, which resulted in an early form of self-government.  Villages chose their own leaders by holding elections.  Cities–their populations bolstered by peasant migration from the countryside to take advantage of the new money-based economy– elected their own city council members and mayors.

The result was a culture of self-government that did not exist in areas that were largely spared by the Black Death.  In those seemingly fortunate regions, serfdom, powerful elites, and the feudal economy persisted, in contrast to the new freedoms and economic prosperity of the regions where the plague proved the most deadly.

Gingerich and Vogler, who focus their research on Germany, say that this culture of self-government, with its values of political and economic freedom, continued even after the Middle Ages, with these regions generally favoring pro-Democratic political parties, and opposing  monarchical parties and even, in the 20th century, National Socialism.

I wonder if there is a correlation between the severity of the plague and the regions and cities that embraced the Reformation.  The authors look at Württemberg as a case study, and that would become a Lutheran city.  But the authors don’t really go into the religious factors.

They go on to suggest that the COVID pandemic might also have similar democratic effects.  They admit that COVID is not at all comparable to the Black Death, with its 70% death rate, in terms of fatalities.  Still, COVID has led to a labor shortage, which has driven up wages, though, in the absence of the “demographic collapse” caused by the plague, the authors conclude that the advantage to workers will probably be temporary.

I would argue, though, that if the Black Plague contributed to decentralized government and  the rise of freedom, the COVID epidemic has done the opposite, resulting in a more powerful central government and to to the loss of freedom.

We’ll talk about that next time, so tune in tomorrow!


Illustration:  St. Sebastian pleading for plague victims by Josse Lieferinxe (149-=1499), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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