The Black Death and Property Rights
David D. Haddock and Lynne Kiesling
Journal of Legal Studies: vol.31 (June 2002)
The Black Death visited unprecedented mortality rates on Europe, realigning relative values of factors of production, and in consequence the costs and benefits of defining and enforcing property rights. Our model refines the conceptual range of shared claims that exist between open access and private property, improving analysis of the postplague pattern and timing of abandonments and privatizations. Because of title enforcement costs, the decreased marginal value of nonhuman assets induced a lapse of some private claims, although communities continued to exploit a part of those resources informally as a commons. In contrast, the marginal value of labor and human capital rose, which placed insupportable stress on feudal institutions. The predictable evolution of workers’ rights to their own labor accelerated the erosion of serfdom. The Black Death thus illustrates demographic change inducing evolutionary institutional change.
The fingers of one hand count Europe’s mid-fourteenth-century Black Death years. Given better data, one might view the sixth century’s Plague of Justinian as a close rival, but the Black Death brought the highest continentwide annual death rates ever reliably documented before or since. Although most regions lacked decent census data, chroniclers throughout Europe recorded exceedingly gruesome qualitative impressions. From scattered but relatively good English, French, and Italian demographics, scholars have extrapolated that overall one-quarter to one-third of the continent’s population perished in half a decade, although in extreme instances some locales were utterly depopulated. Even J. C. Russell, a relatively conservative researcher, believed that excess mortality exceeded 15 percent. A modern observer trying to gauge such horror finds little that is remotely comparable. At this time, similar death rates from AIDS have been isolated, and death rate spikes during our most costly wars pale in contrast.
The Black Death left nonhuman inputs virtually untouched; it therefore profoundly altered relative factor values. Labor and human capital rapidly became scarce relative to complementary nonhuman factors, while the other factors grew increasingly abundant per capita. To a notable degree, factor rewards are said to have atrophied at customary levels across the feudal centuries, but during the pestilence, shadow prices of human factors soared ever higher as those of nonafflicted factors plummeted. Because feudal factor prices were much stickier than modern ones, the economy became unbalanced, although initially the inexperienced survivors could barely envision the more comprehensive markets now required. Feudal society adapted poorly to rapid change, and the ensuing stress broke a great many medieval institutions.