How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

And what that can teach us about the coronavirus’ potential to do the same

EEven before the Black Death, aka the plague, Europe had fallen on tough times: The 14th century began with a mini ice age and torrential rain, ruining crops and spreading starvation among tens of millions of serfs working hereditary land for nobles in a centuries-old feudal system overseen by the pope. Then came the plague, killing half the people across the continent.

By the time the plague wound down in the latter part of the century, the world had utterly changed: The wages of ordinary farmers and craftsmen had doubled and tripled, and nobles were knocked down a notch in social status. The church’s hold on society was damaged, and Western Europe’s feudal system was on its way out — an inflection point that opened the way to the Reformation and the even greater worker gains of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did?

Since Covid-19 broke out three months ago, experts and politicians have said that it’s unprecedented or, when pushed, compared it with SARS and MERS, the most recent coronavirus pandemics. Many have cited lessons of the Great Influenza, the 1918 flu that killed about 50 million people around the world, about 2% of the population. But the plague was by far the deadliest pandemic of the past thousand years, killing a much higher percentage of the population with a far greater mortality rate than any other major pandemic. And while it was categorically grim, it was also a catalyst for the brighter, centuries-long history that followed, right up to today.

A primary worry about the coronavirus is whether it will leave permanent marks when it is finally beaten, and if so, what sort. Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way that 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did? It’s too early to say with any certainty, but there are clues of a changed reality to come in the United States and abroad, socially and economically.

TThe plague struck in 1347, traveling with the fleas on black rats aboard a galley from Crimea to Sicily. From there, the disease went on other ships to Venice and Marseilles. It was in England by 1348 and reached Scotland and Scandinavia the following year. At the time, Europe was already miserable. Like now, a change in climate was a contributor; in this case, not warming, but cold — the Little Ice Age, a centuries-long plunge in temperatures across the planet that wrecked the grain crops, leaving millions with nothing to eat, and stirred some to murderous attacks on the nobles. Layered on top, the Hundred Years War between France and England caused general upheaval. When the plague arrived, European society, already on its back, all but disintegrated.

In 1352, the Black Death petered out, having killed a third of Europe. But the pestilence was not finished. It returned five times before the end of the century, ultimately killing at least half the continent’s pre-plague population of 80 million people—in some places, virtually everyone.

The waves were the most insidious thing. You thought you were past the worst, until you weren’t. Take the Tuscan city of Pistoia, ravaged by pestilences in 1339, 1347, 1348, 1357, 1389, 1393, and 1399. By then, the population had plunged from 40,000 to 14,000, a 65% decline, writes David Hackett Fischer in The Great Wave. But then the disease struck again in 1410, 1418, 1423, 1436, and 1457. The eruptions across Europe, though less frequent, continued through the 17th century and until the 1850s in the Middle East.

One consequence was a desertion of the countryside. Survivors abandoned inferior, outlying lands and moved to the city, attracted by fixed infrastructure near rivers and coastlines and the newly unoccupied houses of the well-to-do, which peasants now moved into. They dined using silver utensils and claimed the deceased families’ livestock, tools, and sometimes machinery, writes Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

For these peasants, there was a new living standard and social standing that no one could have expected. In a 2007 paper, Sevket Pamuk, an economic historian at the London School of Economics, wrote that the plague pushed up the whole structure of wages and set the stage for the tumultuous labor wars of the Industrial Revolution. In England and France, textile workers and artisans won shorter hours and double and triple their pre-plague pay. The landed rich in both countries passed laws to keep the peasants in line, but in the face of the new economic reality, the statutes were ignored. “In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary,” Tuchman wrote.

Attitudes toward the Church changed as well. The relentless rains and famine in the early part of the century had already shaken people’s faith in the pope. Now came “the end of an age of submission,” Tuchman wrote. “To that extent, the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

ByBy the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world had become more interconnected than it had ever been. Never was there the volume and scale of commerce and people among nations. That age closed with the two world wars but resumed on steroids over the past three decades — a period of massive globalization in which manufacturing parts seem to come from everywhere and undergo assembly anywhere.

Now, in a new lurch back, the world of Covid-19, far more suspicious of dependence on supply chains, seems likely to be a new turning point, a trigger of fateful social and economic change that we can only ponder. One thing that seems certain is that the virus will accelerate forces already in play.

Even before Covid-19, the U.S. and Chinese economies had been decoupling, driven by the Trump-instigated trade war. There was resistance: Members of the intellectual and corporate classes argued that while globalization had eliminated swaths of U.S. jobs, it had also lifted hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty and created vast wealth. It seemed mindless and immoral to throw out the whole system when tinkering could relieve inadvertent inequities. But the post-virus United States seems likely to shun such ambivalence and favor self-reliant production located within reach. “We start breaking back into little pieces,” Paul Saffo, a futurist at Stanford University, told me.

This does not mean that China’s footprint will shrink. Rather, the post-coronavirus world seems likely to feature a taller China, convinced of its superior resilience. Behind it is likely to be Europe, resentfully let down by a go-it-alone United States that, unlike in prior global crises, has pulled in and not led the world response. Regardless of who follows Trump to power, Europeans will not want to subject themselves again to that geopolitical vulnerability. Already, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, the virus has transformed China into a “softpower superpower.” Sam Brennan, director of the risks and foresight group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adds, “This really could be a decline-of-the-West moment.”

As an unexpected catalyst for geopolitical change, the transformation would unfold over many generations. Branko Milanovic, a professor at the City University of New York, told me that it took two centuries for the Western Roman Empire to disintegrate into feudalism, “and that was under the pressure of war, plus two plagues.”

In the bigger social picture, the past two centuries have been all about a dramatic economic shift in which people largely stopped crafting and growing goods at home and instead congregated for work in factories and offices. In the 1810s, when weavers were automated out of their jobs, they arose in what became known as the Luddite rebellion. Britain put down the uprising by hanging some of its members and shipping off others to Australia.

The coronavirus is vastly speeding up the latest wave of automation. Robotization is going ahead faster in restaurants, factories, warehouses, and other businesses, all in a frenzy to reduce risk and save labor costs, the Brookings Institution said in a report last week. All of that is postindustrial. But we are also experiencing a shift back to the pre–Industrial Age, with large parts of the economy based in homes — and vehicles. Both workers and their employers are becoming accustomed to the work-from-home movement, and much has already been said about how this jump seems permanent. What has been discussed less is the coming reverberation in cities, built up over centuries into metropolises of gigantic office and residential buildings whose valuations could change dramatically. It is hard to imagine a repeat of the age of the plague, when the answer was that poor people from the countryside moved in. But new uses will have to emerge for lesser-occupied if not abandoned office buildings.

With the return to the home, we are asked to acquiesce to a different kind of intrusion: software that allows companies to monitor who is actually working. That is no accident. The post-virus world is likely to be ever more Orwellian. For the first time in history, governments can actively surveil and respond to everyone and punish those who defy public ordinances — such as health orders. Just as people have come to expect cameras recording their movements on the street since 9/11, Americans in the post-Covid-19 world may see nothing unusual about more intimate measures like public monitoring of their temperature and blood pressure.

Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English diarist, wrote of a London epidemic in 1665, “The plague makes us cruel, as dogs, one to another.”

Public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, writing in the Financial Times, pushes back on this coming world of heightened surveillance. We would achieve control of pandemics, he argues, but also empower governments to know too much. In places like North Korea, for instance, police could monitor public attitudes to a speech by leader Kim Jong Un. If you are boiling over with rage, he writes, “you are done for.” What is to prevent so-inclined future American leaders from abusing the system to gauge and respond to their own public resonance?

“Revolution sucks,” Stanford’s Saffo told me, and a number of thinkers say the transformation we are living through won’t be different. During the plague, Jews were massacred across Europe, falsely accused of poisoning wells. In an outbreak of disease in 4th-century BC Athens, people “became contemptuous of everything, both sacred and profane,” wrote the historian Thucydides, quoted by Charles Mann in his book 1491. Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English diarist, wrote of a London epidemic in 1665, “The plague makes us cruel, as dogs, one to another.”

Today, says Noel Johnson, an economics professor at George Mason and co-author of a paper last year on the Black Death, loathsome behavior lives on in the scapegoating and attacking of Asians and immigrants. He predicts that pogroms could follow in the virus and post-virus era, running “the gamut from expulsions to overt violence that is either implicitly or explicitly sanctioned by governments. I would expect the persecution to be more prevalent in places with a history of anti-Semitism or anti-immigrant behavior. I would also expect it to be worse in places with weaker state capacity — though I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to see it in places like the U.S. or Western Europe.”

But plenty will also happen peaceably. The expansion of the homebound gig economy is already spurring a din of minimum-wage workers demanding sick pay and safety. This could broaden into a new labor movement that insists on restoring gains lost over the past several decades, including far higher salaries for nurses and elder-care workers, newly grasped as central to virus-era survival. The at-once palpable, life-or-death demand for robust public medical care could put fresh bipartisan propulsion behind national health legislation.

During the plague, what changed was the seemingly unchangeable, especially for people who until then had been largely invisible. What had been fixed in place was, all at once, not. As we try to discern the shape of the future, this phase of history is increasingly looking like that one.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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