The history of the world has seen multiple examples of global crises, which had a considerable impact on society. Outbreaks of lethal diseases happen spontaneously, and humanity exercises little control over them. In addition to high death tolls, pandemics affect a variety of processes, namely the global economy. The plague ravaged medieval Europe, remaining one of the worst crises of history. While humanity has made substantial progress in the sphere of disease control and prevention, the current COVID-19 situation demonstrates a range of similarities to the so-called Black Death. The purpose of this paper is to examine the outbreak of plague in medieval Europe, comparing its economic impact to the present COVID-19 pandemic.
Overview of the Black Death Pandemic
The plague pandemic of the 14th century is often titled the Black Death, owing this name to the immensely dire impact it had on medieval Europe. Some scholars refer to it as the “largest demographic disaster in European history” (Routt 1). Scholars trace the origins of the plague to Asian countries, from which infected rats were brought to Europe aboard merchants’ ships (Council for Economic Education 240). The disease was highly contagious, rapidly spreading from major ports to other towns and villages. Its initial symptoms were quite vague, comprising severe headaches and nausea. However, infected patients soon exhibited the unique features of the plague in the form of “painful black lumps, or buboes, growing in the armpits and groin” (Russell 1). According to various historical accounts, the bubonic plague could kill an otherwise healthy person overnight (Council for Economic Education 240). Its highly aggressive nature and wide spread of the outbreak explain why the disease was called the Black Death.
As discussed above, the demographic impact of the bubonic plague was colossal. While Europe was familiar with outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as typhoid fever or diphtheria, the plague became a challenge of unprecedented magnitude. Having no immunity against the new infection, people succumbed to the plague. The mortality rate of the Black Death reached, by some accounts, 80% among all those who contracted it (Russel). In total, the death toll of this historic outbreak is considered to be between one-third and one-half of the entire population of Europe (“The Economic Consequences”). The amount of pain, suffering, and death brought by the plague secured its position as one of the darkest events in the history of humanity.
Economic Impact of the Black Death
Naturally, an outbreak of such scale had an immense impact on all areas of human activity. The colossal death toll discussed earlier soon translated into a massive shortage of workforce. As a result, there were not enough people to harvest the crops, process, and transport them (“The Economic Consequences”). Once the pandemic was over, the few remaining peasants in each area were reluctant to handle the increased quantity of work for the same amount of pay. Accordingly, the economy of Europe saw a rapid increase in wages of the workers in the fallout of the Black Death. In this situation, only those employers who could afford the new payments managed to continue their operations. At the same time, workers refused to do anything for smaller wages, which had adverse consequences in terms of economic recovery and development.
Naturally, such a situation attracted the attention of the high authorities of the countries. The case of England serves as the most prominent example of economic measures taken in the fallout of the Black Death. In 1351, the Crown issued the Statute of Laborers, which obliged all people under the age of sixty to accept any work offered to them (Council for Economic Education 240). The number of workers became much smaller after the pandemic, but the quantities of land and tools remained the same. Consequently, people had to find a way to do their duties in the most efficient way. This tendency increased the overall productivity of the workforce, providing landlords with incentives to increase the pay. However, some employers avoided the restrictions of the Statute by paying illegally high wages or offering money equivalents (Council for Economic Education 240). Overall, while the Black Plague was a terrible tragedy, its consequences prompted the development of work productivity and better standards of living for peasants.
Black Death and COVID-19
In the 21st century, the bubonic plague is often discussed in the context of the most recent pandemic. The novel coronavirus outbreak began in 2020, continuing to increase its worldwide death toll. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total number of COVID-related deaths in the United States is now over 350,000 people (“Provisional Death Counts”). Indeed, the mortality rate of the new pandemic can hardly be compared to that of the Black Death. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has entailed severe economic consequences due to the highly globalized, interconnected framework of contemporary society. In fact, the aftermath of the Black Death reinforced the power of the authorities and ensured the dominance of several large players in the European market (Russel). The remaining resources and capital became concentrated in the hands of the few.
COVID-19 has the potential to establish a similar situation, although on a smaller scale. First of all, the economic impact of the lockdown can only be handled by large companies with a certain financial safety net. Secondly, the pandemic has influenced the lifestyle of the population, increasing the emphasis on electronic commerce and other online services usually controlled by large corporations. At the same time, many people experienced a significant decrease in payment or even lost their jobs due to the global crisis. If the trend persists, the rich will continue to become richer at the expense of smaller businesses and regular people.
The outbreak of the bubonic plague took the lives of almost half of the European population, entailing dire economic, social, and demographic consequences. On the other hand, the post-plague labor market situation led to the increased productivity of workers and ensured a better quality of life for them. Nevertheless, the macroeconomic processes became concentrated in the hands of large companies and authorities. Amid reasonable concerns that a similar development may occur after COVID-19, society must find the most efficient way of recovering from the pandemic. As the history of post-plague Europe shows, it is possible to establish positive trends even after the worst crises, which is what the world should do in the 21st century, as well.
Council for Economic Education. “The Economic Impact of the Black Death of 1347–1352.” Focus: Middle School World History, pp. 240-248.
“Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease 2019.” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web.
Routt, David. “The Economic Impact of the Black Death.” EH. n.d. Web.
Russell, Eleanor. “How the Black Death Made the Rich Richer.” BBC, 2020. Web.
“The Economic Consequences of the Black Death.” Spartacus Educational. n.d. Web.