By Andrew Latham
The Black Death. The Great Mortality. The Great Pestilence. The bubonic plague pandemic that broke out in Europe in 1347, and that killed between one-third and one-half of the total European population of 80 million people, goes by a variety of names. But whatever it is called, it is remembered in the Western world as the plague, the pandemic that to this day shapes our very definition of a lethal pandemic, the pandemic against which all other pandemics are measured (and typically found wanting).
And yet the prominence of the Black Death in the cultural memory of the West is not matched by a full appreciation of the way it profoundly shaped the subsequent political, economic, and cultural evolution of the West. This is odd, for the Great Mortality changed everything. Before the Yersinia pestis bacterium arrived in 1347 and then spread throughout Latin Christendom, what is now called western Europe was a feudal society, organized economically around manorialism and politically around networks of lord-vassal relations. By the time the pandemic had burned itself out in the early 1350s, that world was on its deathbed. In its place was emerging a new world, a world of free labor, accelerated technological innovation, and a rising middle class.
How did this ‘great transition’ happen? Marxists generally argue that the advent of capitalist modernity was a function of the internal contradictions of the feudal mode of production. Some would have us believe that modernity was a byproduct of the recovery of classical ideas lost during the so-called Dark ages but later reintroduced from the Islamic world. Others attribute it to factors such as climate change, the fall of Constantinople, the Reformation, and the Columbian Encounter. These are all important factors conditioning the historical transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern era. The simple truth, however, is that the transition to modernity was ultimately an artifact of something much simpler, something much more primordial: the eternal dialectic between humanity and germs.
How did the Yersinia pestis pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, and then returned five times before the end of the century, spark the transition from the feudal Middle Ages to capitalist modernity? Although there is much debate about the specifics, three basic mechanisms seem to have played key roles in affecting this transition. First, the plague triggered the terminal decline of the feudal or manorial mode of production that had been ushered in by the Plague of Justinian. Before the plague, Europe had been overpopulated. As a result, labor was cheap, serfs had little bargaining power, social mobility was low, and there was little incentive to increase productivity through technological innovation. But with the loss of 30 to 50 percent of the population, this all began to change. The plague, which affected the poor more dramatically than the wealthy, decimated the agrarian workforce, making peasant labor a relatively scarce commodity. This increased the survivors’ bargaining position, allowing them to negotiate both better compensation – in cash, not kind – for their services, and a general attenuation of their feudal obligations. In short, it became possible for peasants to move about and rise higher in life.
Manorialism never recovered. With land plentiful, wages high, and fewer limits on social and geographical mobility, serfdom all but disappeared. By 1500, a new form of tenure called copyhold had replaced manorialism, at least in western Europe. In this new socio-economic system, lords and peasants negotiated mutually agreeable terms, typically involving the peasant being granted the legal right to occupy and use (though not own) the land and the lord receiving a fixed annual payment in return.
Second, and to some extent as a result of its depopulating impact, the Black Death encouraged both the widespread adoption of existing labor-saving technologies and practices and the development of new ones. In the agrarian economy, this resulted in the widespread adoption of the iron plow, the three-field crop rotation system, and fertilization with manure, all of which significantly increased productivity.
In the urban economy, it resulted in the development of entirely new labor-saving tools and machines. The need to conduct long-distance trade as efficiently as possible gave rise to efforts to produce bigger ships with smaller crews, leading to new shipbuilding technologies and new business institutions such as maritime insurance. The need to enhance ‘productivity’ also underpinned the development and widespread adoption of firearms, as soldiers with firearms could fight more efficiently than those without. The Black Death even spurred the search for cheaper ways of reproducing books – previously copied laboriously by hand in monasteries – a search that ultimately culminated in Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1453.
Finally, it was the Black Death, and not some internal contradictions of feudalism, that led to the emergence in Europe of a powerful bourgeois class and laid the foundations of capitalism. Freedom from feudal obligations, greater wealth, and a desire to move up the social ladder inclined many peasants to leave the land, move to towns, and engage in crafts and trades. The more successful ones became wealthy, constituting a new “middle class,” located between the peasantry and the aristocracy. Over time, this new class became the central node in a cash economy that increasingly overshadowed the agrarian economy out of which it had emerged.
Significantly, as this class became wealthier, it began to rival the old landed nobility. With more disposable income, the newly rich could afford more of the luxury goods that could only be obtained in the East. This stimulated long-distance trade, accelerating the commercial revolution that had been underway since before the plague. One result of this was that new ideas (or old ones once lost to Europe) flowed from the Islamic world into Europe, stimulating a rise in learning. Another was that, as this new middle class became wealthier, it began to patronize the arts, science, literature, and philosophy. The result was an explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity we now call the Renaissance. It was also the end of what we now call the Medieval era.
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Top Image: Scène d’intercession, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts – photo by Céline Rabaud / Wikimedia Commons