Economic Effects Of The Black Death

Economics is essentially the study of how people create, trade, and use goods and services. People need certain things and to have certain things done, and others provide these through their labor, at a price. Those who demand, or need, these goods and services are willing to pay for them, and they pay more for them when their need or desire for them is great or when the supply of them is small. The Black Death killed both those who demanded goods and services and those who supplied them, but in general it did not affect the supply of things—including money—available in a given place. Over the longer run, however, it affected all of these: supply, demand, prices, labor wages, even the amount of money and things available.

During the epidemic the people who needed and bought many types of goods and services died, and thus demand for many of these dropped, and prices dropped in the short run. There was an increase, however, in demand for other things, such as coffins, candle wax, medicines and herbs, cloth for shrouds, and the services of physicians, barber-surgeons, notaries, gravediggers, and priests. Prices or fees for these rose as they became scarcer, or as the professionals died off.

Gravediggers aside, the other professionals had a wealth of training and experience that disappeared when they died, and replacing them would not be easy or inexpensive. The same was true of people with other desired skills, such as carpenters, stonemasons, brewers (good ones), artists, teachers, shoemakers, and metalworkers. Not only were they not there to carry on their own work, they were also not there to teach a new generation their craft. Survivors could command high fees, prices, or wages. Cities, where such people tended to congregate, often made special efforts to bring survivors with these skills to their towns under very advantageous conditions, such as quick licensing for professionals, tax exemptions for certain types of merchants, or free lodging.

But this was only one type of "human capital." In cities unskilled laborers also died and were in short supply, and they came to command rather higher wages than before the Plague. Some of these came from other towns or cities, but many moved in from the countryside around the city, leaving fields and crops behind and unattended. This certainly accounts for some of the rural-urban migration found throughout Europe from Dublin to Novgorod. This, of course, hurt the landlords, whose land and crops lay abandoned or underattended. In some places there was an excess of labor to begin with, or the death rates were minimal, and all of the jobs that needed doing were filled by the previously underemployed. In such places wages did not rise appreciably, nor did the prices of the produce or other goods supplied. But in most places labor became scarce and employers had to pay more for it, either by raising wages or lowering rents or by eliminating traditional services that land-bound peasants owed. Prices for grain and other food, which initially dropped as people died and demand fell, rose again as the supply fell (people ate it up) and the cost of supplying it rose. The tenants and laborers, rather than the landlords, however, were the ones to benefit from this situation.

Agricultural workers who were free to move about—and many who by law were not—followed the market incentives. In Italy landlords both old and new made sharecropping contracts with farmers, providing capital (land, seed, tools, housing) in exchange for their labor. In this mez-zadria system the tenant received a fixed percentage of the crop, and thus had a real incentive to work hard and produce as much as possible. In England peasant holdings tended to increase in size as there were fewer workers to tend to the same amount of cultivated land. Landlords had to make better deals with their tenant-farmers to convince them to stay. On large Church-controlled estates that were still essentially manorial, the religious landlords often reduced or eliminated the extra work or payments traditionally expected of peasants. Some even leased out to tenants their demesne land, which had traditionally been worked by peasants for the exclusive benefit of the landlord. In short, as long as labor was in relatively short supply, wages and other conditions for the laborer would be relatively good. Laborers also tended to profit from the redistribution of wealth that followed the initial drop in population. In villages poorer folks married slightly richer ones, and people combined their families and belongings and even landholdings; some moved into better housing, or acquired money, tools, or furnishings through inheritance or theft. On average, across Europe, the agricultural worker was better off financially and materially after the epidemic of 1348-50.

The landlord, however, lost by every concession. Higher prices for grain and other produce reflected their scarcity and higher cost of production, not greater demand, and certainly not higher profits for the landlord. Owners took less productive land out of production, and they shifted away from grain production. Especially in England and the Central Meseta in Spain landowners began to raise sheep, which were quite useful for both their wool and flesh, and which were also far less laborintensive than agriculture. The revenue from sheep grazing was not as high as that for most agricultural crops, but there was a profit to be had. At Merdon in Hampshire, England, sheep pasture acreage more than doubled from before the Plague to the mid-1370s: 1347-48, 513 acres; 1353-54, 791 acres; and 1376-77, 1,232 acres. This trend in turn aided the burgeoning English wool cloth industry; annual cloth exports increased tenfold from 1350 to 1362 (1,115 to 10,812 bolts of cloth).13 Abandoned farmsteads, village houses, and even entire villages soon fell into disrepair and then ruin, meaning either their loss to the landlord or high costs for repair or replacement. In locales close to an urban area that was growing or thriving the demand for food might remain high, or even grow, but then another wave of death killed laborer and customer alike, and the landlord—if he survived—absorbed the losses in revenues. In central Italy some rural landowners became so poor that they turned to banditry or rented out their services as military merce-naries.14

In England and Aragon the royal governments took steps to dampen these effects by restricting what an employer or landlord could offer in wages and benefits and forcing workers to accept the wages offered. Even the Church did this to regulate clerical incomes, amid claims that priests were charging excessively for their services. Edward III of England issued the Ordinance of Laborers in June 1349 in the immediate wake of the pestilence. "Employees" were choosing not to work, or to work for only "outrageous wages." The Royal Government established 1346, "or five or six years earlier," as the benchmark for appropriate wage levels. As historian R. C. Palmer summarized it, these were mechanisms to "force people to work, to diminish competition, and to moderate demands for higher wages."15 Those who refused to work for such wages were to be imprisoned. Enforcement of the Ordinance was left to the landlords and employers, who apparently did a poor job.

Two years later, in 1351, a more official Statute of Laborers was issued, which tightened some of the restrictions: hiring had to be done in the open with no secret agreements, and "without food or other bonus being asked, given, or taken." Enforcement was taken out of the hands of the landowners themselves and placed in those of public officials, specifically "stewards, bailiffs, and constables," who were responsible to the court of the Justice of the Peace. All who charged a fee for goods or services were to take an oath to charge as they had before the Plague. Oath-breakers were referred to as "rebels," and prison terms were increased with subsequent breaches of the law—and their oaths.16 The charges brought could be as simple as the following: "they present that John Loue of High Easter is a common reaper and moves from place to place for excessive wages, and gets others to act in the same way against the statute." It may not have been enforced vigorously everywhere, as some claim, but in Essex County in 1352, courts fined 7,556 people, of whom 20 percent were women, for breach of the Statute. As late as thirty-seven years later (1389), 791 fines were levied for such breaches in Essex.17

This kind of economic legislation by the English royal government was really new in two ways. First, it forced the king's will right into the wallets of Englishmen, from the poorest laborers to wealthy merchants, for something other than taxes. It interfered in both guild and freemarket wage-setting. What the Ordinance and Statute really intruded on was the freedom of contract, and the intrusion was radical. Second, this is indicative of the slowly growing royal power and authority; the Crown would use the law to control society directly, not merely through the rapidly expiring feudal system. In so doing, the Crown allied itself not with local nobles, but with the lower, knightly class whose members increasingly served as sheriffs, bailiffs, and other Crown officers at the local level. This group emerged as the new gentry class, who became, in the words of one historian, "the self-interested architects of good order." Landowners big and small tended to cease squabbling among themselves and found common cause against laborers and the new legal weapon with which to oppress them.18 To some—often disputed—extent, this led to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Despite the changes in the role and even structure of government, the Crown's efforts were strictly conservative, and their purpose to preserve the social and economic status quo. Sumptuary laws restricting certain behaviors and styles of dress were issued in 1363 and meant to prevent lower classes from dressing or acting like their social betters. Though not well enforced, these did reinforce the line between classes and kept down the demand for—and price of—expensive cloth. Even beggars were soon to be regulated: the Statute of Cambridge (1388) sought to keep them from wandering and licensed those who needed to travel seeking work.19

But was all this repression a sign of an English "second serfdom," or was feudalism in fact disintegrating and disappearing under these pressures? English historians have long argued the role of the Black Death in ending English feudalism. For our purposes this was defined by the fourteenth century as the manorial relationship of landlord and unfree serf who is due protection, justice, and a share of the crop in return for labor in the lord's demesne fields and on roads and such, customary payments, and the obligation not to run away. Landlords had always used both free and serf labor, but the percentage of land worked by free peasants seems to have been steadily growing for a couple of centuries prior to 1348. Studies of local conditions appear to indicate that the nonagricultural burdens on serf labor were also lightening before the Black Death in many places. As in other aspects of social and cultural change, feudalism's decline seems to have been accelerated by the Black Death and its recurrences; the Black Death was a crisis in the history of feudalism. The weakness of the landlords' position, despite the Statute of Laborers, and the failure of the English population to regenerate itself inevitably meant that negotiation rather than coercion would become the norm. The fifteenth century saw the withering away of most obligations and restrictions on peasant labor, though serfdom on a limited scale survived into the sixteenth century.

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