The plagues impact on European civilisation cannot be understated, nor confined to statistics on population reduction. The Black death was horrible, however it had benign economic effects, helping transform the economy of medieval Europe through influencing social relations, culture, religion and politics. Many argue that the black death helped ‘reset’ European civilisation, ending serfdom and contributing to the subsequent renaissance in later centuries.
Pre-plague Europe had enjoyed several prior centuries of expansion, both of population and economy. The Black death quickly put a sure cap on this period of growth through the removal of between a third to half of Europe’s population, with far fewer people working and consuming, economic activity entered a kind of post-plague recession. It is here that they full shaping effect of the plague came into force, laying the foundations for Europe’s next economic explosion. Severe depopulation and migration from villages to cities caused an acute shortage of laborers, with many villages abandoned for the largely agrarian economies of western Europe was nothing short of a disaster.
Basic economic theory suggests that with a decline in labour supply, wages and conditions increase, historians however clash on this point. Medieval governments were concerned about the growing power of labour after the first wave of deaths, various statues were imposed fixing wages at pre-plague levels, however unrest still forced the hand of change. Manorial records from the late 14th century note that some lords abandoned their holdings, others were forced to surrender to tenants on almost any terms offered.
John Gower, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer laments in 1378 “labourers of olden times were not accustom to eat wheat bread…their drink was water…clothing plain grey. Then was a world of such folk well-ordered”, times had changed. The shortage of labour meant that wages rose, giving vast swathes of society more money to spend on consumer goods such as beer, clothing and furniture. However, Helen Robbins notes that there was a check to rising wages, an increase in the cost of living through inflation. Grain rotted in the fields due to a lack of harvesters, squeezing food supply, Robbins argues that the price of wheat increased in England by 150% from 1348-1351. With these rising prices, feudal lord’s profits remained robust. Things changed in 1375, a bumper harvest left crop prices to plummet while the cost of labour remained high after the epidemic of 1368-1371, faming revenues falling and systems changing.
Throughout this period workers were paying lower rents and had fewer obligations to their lord, labour services fading out to be replaced by purely monetary arrangements between employers and employee. This forced creation of monetised labour markets became customary, leading eventually to the dissolution of feudalism by the 16th century.
Higher labour costs also incentivised employers to improve economic efficiently, leading to the commercialisation of agriculture in North Western Europe; with fewer mouths to feed the focus could rest upon animal husbandry and cash crops like hops or sugarcane, over the staple crop of grain. A further example of labour saving innovation can be seen when looking at scribes copying manuscripts, in post-plague Europe this became incredibly inefficient leading to Gutenberg’s printing press, just over a century after the plague arrived in England. These plague induced labour saving technologies lead to far higher productivity.
A more speculative theory suggests that the death count of land encourages more Europeans to take the risks at sea, where death counts of long voyages were particularly high. This change in mentality could be cited as the start of colonialism, the spread of plague leading to the spread of Europe.
As the plague hit both the wealthy and poor, an important social change also took place in inheritance law; prior to the plague only the eldest sons inherited ancestral property, post plague all sons as well as daughters started inheriting property.
More people were drawn into the market economy within this period, trade networks grew, new labour saving technologies boosted productivity and tradable stock, new accounting methods born through necessity, such as double entry book keeping meant that money became available for investment at lower interest rates and became widely accessible. Living standards improved, wages rose and feudalism began to wind down to its end, all of which can be traced back to the Black Death.