In a sense, the Black Death changed everything. The population of Europe fell sharply, and did not recover fully until the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. In itself, this demographic change had all kinds of effects, notably giving more power to the working people (most of whom lived in rural areas working for the landowners or farming their own small plots, or both) since demand for their labour outstripped supply. The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries saw the richer peasants taking advantage of their opportunities and forming what was eventually seen as a new economic class, somewhere between the upper class of nobles and knights and the lower class of tenants. They were known as yeomen, and as more land became available freehold they bought it and farmed it with the help of paid labour, like the lords, yet did not posses or seek to possess multiple estates on which tenants paid rents. Thus the economic system of landholding of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries bore less and less resemblance to that pertaining before the Black Death.
Economic changes brought social changes in their wake. The old system of land use, based on common fields for the tenants and customary obligations (for the unfree among those tenants) to till the lord’s fields for a certain number of days each year, was gradually replaced by the enclosure of land by the lords, who worked their fields using paid employee labour, while tenants paid rent and tilled their own plots. Wages rose steeply and the feudal system that had kept tenants tied to their own manors eventually became obsolete. The commutation of labour services, in loosening the economic bonds between landlord and tenant, also widened the social and personal distance between them. Lords became less involved with the lives of their tenants and also less inclined to dole out charity and benefits. Over the next two centuries, although philanthropic lords still existed, they became more interested in grand public initiatives such as founding schools, and the burden of caring for the social inadequates and unfortunates fell more and more upon charitable enterprises such as the monasteries. This caused the latter to put less emphasis on their original raison d’être of prayer, and more on their secondary purpose of social welfare. So much did the country come to depend on this aspect of monastic life that when Henry VIII decided to close religious houses and plunder their assets, it became necessary to set up a system of poor relief to replace it.
Greater wealth and independence for free tenants led to a blurring of social status. Statutes in 1349 and later that tried to keep the ‘lower orders’ in their place were ignored and over time could not be enforced, as the economic power of the landlords withered. Although the social and political power of the lordly class remained, society became more mobile. At the same time, the peasants became less content with the social and economic status quo. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was, in part, a symptom of this – among the rebels’ demands was the end of serfdom.
As well as the social and economic effects of the Black Death, it seems (not surprisingly) that there were psychological effects. Even in an era when death from infectious diseases was common, and infant and child mortality high, the shock of the massive death toll – perhaps 50% of the English population, varying from one place to another so that in some a mere 25% may have perished, in others whole villages were abandoned, and there was another serious outbreak in 1361 which killed many children and young people who had not yet been born in 1349 – had a profound effect on popular religiosity, and on the emotional lives of those who survived. The cult of the Virgin Mary, already in decline by this period, was replaced by a cult of death – famous images such as ‘the Three Dead and the Three Living’ owed their power to this emotional trauma, which may have been related to what we would call today ‘survivor guilt’. On the other extreme, a kind of hedonism prevailed among those who prospered after the first and most devastating waves of the plague had passed . Fine clothes and extravagant fashions became popular among the upper echelons of society, and the wealthier peasants aped these, much to displeasure of the ruling class.
The changes went deeper: far from making society more moral in an attempt to ward off more divine wrath, the general failure of the Church and its rituals to protect those who had relied on them seems to have led to more lawlessness, as though ordinary folk were no longer fully convinced that their actions would meet with divine vengeance either in this world or the next. Proto-Protestant movements such as the Lollards in England, who followed and developed the teachings of John Wyclif (who was a young student at Oxford at the time of the Black Death), were in part a reaction to the perceived failure of the old teachings and in part an attempt to make better theological sense of the world. These movements, though suppressed at the time, were part of wider questioning of the old ways which eventually led to the Reformation.
All these changes took time, and were in some respects already happening before the Black Death. For example, over the half-century before 1348 many peasants had become free in all but name as customary work obligations were replaced by money rents, and on many manors this suited both parties. Similarly, social mobility had always existed via the Church, which educated poor boys to become priests and clerks, giving them opportunities they would otherwise have lacked. But other changes in social relationships made this fluidity easier. The Black Death’s demographic impact merely accelerated the change. But the faster the change, the less likely it is to be assimilated easily, and the more likely it is to cause other changes that are less easy to predict.
It remains to be seen what social and economic changes the pandemic of 2020/21 will bring. We have not and probably will not face a death toll above 1% if as much (as I write this it is well below that figure, around 0.15%), as medical science has gone into overdrive, thanks to the dedicated work of researchers and practitioners. Vaccines and improved treatments are already lowering death rates, though viruses (unlike Y pestis, whose form remains relatively stable over centuries) can mutate and challenge those medical developments further. But in an age where death tolls as well as birth rates are much lower than they were in the medieval period, the death toll (and the media coverage of the pandemic) seems just as horrific. The idea that 1 in every 1000 people in the United States has died this year of Covid-19 is shocking – as it should be. Emotional and mental trauma has clearly resulted for many people, and some will not recover easily from it, particularly where loved ones have been among those who died.
Socially, people have learned to look after each other in communities and to be aware of each other’s needs in a new or at least radically different way, and this may (though it is not certain) change the way communities work in the future. There is greater appreciation (again, at least in the short term) for those termed ‘key workers’, not only the obvious categories of NHS and care workers operating in the front line of the pandemic, but also the delivery drivers, local shopkeepers, posties, and many others who have kept the country going. So far this has not translated into higher wages for many of the low-paid employees in these industries, perhaps because, in the UK at least, the economic strain of the pandemic, with furlough and other support for business and the after-effects of Brexit threaten to leave a deep recession that will not allow for anyone to be paid more and will probably mean many people’s livelihoods will be reduced or lost altogether. But there is nevertheless a greater awareness of the importance of such key workers.
On the commercial front, we have seen enormous increases in the amount of online shopping, a much safer option than braving the shopping malls even when the latter have been open for business. Even quite small retailers have found ways to sell over the internet, and many people will prefer to do business this way even when Covid-19 is a crisis of the past. Many people have had to give up commuting and a large proportion of employees have enjoyed it and do not want to return to previous ways of working. At the same time, working from home has meant local everyday shopping has become more important. Our big town and city centres may therefore no longer be the hub of economic activity they once were, and it is possible – some commentators would say preferable - that at least part of the unused capacity will be turned over to residential housing, reviving local businesses in a different way. We have also learned to use - and value - other internet services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for both social and business purposes. Many of those who are 'shielding' would have been infinitely more isolated without, and working from home would not have been such a readily feasible option.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, lockdowns (particularly in the first wave) have convinced many people that the environment not only should be protected and rescued from human depredations, but that it can be – there is still time to reduce all kinds of pollution and increase the number of trees, for example. Reports that people in northern India could see the Himalayas for the first time in decades suggest tangible experiences that have the potential to inform public opinion and priorities. In countries such as the UK where lockdowns have forced individuals to focus on the natural world (outside) as their only form of escape from the tedium of restricted social contact and activity (inside), appreciation of the parks and open spaces of our towns and cities, and the access to open countryside enjoyed by many rural dwellers has soared. Pressure on the housing market in rural areas has indicated that many people – at least those who are able to – have decided to opt for working from home in a much less urban situation than before, though this may turn out to be a mixed blessing for the rural environment!
The comparisons I’ve been making between the Black Death and the Covid-19 pandemic are real, but should not be pushed too far. There are many contrasts, too, and as yet we have no way of knowing which of the possible social, economic and environmental changes will actually emerge from it. The survivors of 1348/49 had only the vaguest imaginings of the vast transformation that moved societies from the medieval into the early modern period. These things are only seen clearly with the benefit of historical hindsight. Their changes came about mainly as a result of demographic catastrophe, and ours will not. But changes there will be. Watch this space.