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Pandemics, plagues and innovation in history: the striking parallels between COVID-19 and the Black Death

Scott Tong Jul 8, 2021
Heard on:
Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pandemics, plagues and innovation in history: the striking parallels between COVID-19 and the Black Death

Scott Tong Jul 8, 2021
Heard on:
Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As both business owners and working stiffs try to sort out what a post-COVID economy will look like, historians suggest it’s instructive to look back at the plague of all plagues, the Black Death of the 14th century, and the long-term innovations it helped foster.

In medieval Europe, the term “revenge spending” may not yet have entered the lexicon, but it appears to have been a real thing after the Black Death, which killed roughly one out of every two people between about 1346 and 1353.

“It’s sort of like a YOLO thing,” said Eleanor Janega, historian and guest teacher at the London School of Economics, referring to the popular acronym for “you only live once.” “They know they very well might die at any moment. So there’s kind of this ‘if not now, when’ attitude.”

Just like today, when loads of Americans are dying to get away to, say, Miami Beach or Yellowstone, peasants back in the day splurged on post-plague religious trips, or pilgrimages. Which were not always so religious.

“Medieval people love going on pilgrimage, it’s essentially like a holiday for them,” Janega said. “Maybe they are going to try to pick someone up. They’re going to fool around. Maybe have a little sex. They are definitely going to drink, and they’re gonna come home with this amazing story.”

In fact, one person who lived through the Black Death penned one of the most famous fictional stories ever: Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer — it’s about a group of traveling pilgrims. The most famous tale in the book, the Miller’s Tale, delves into the bawdy and adulterous. An excerpt:

Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay,
And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde;
Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde,
Ther as the carpenter is wont to lye.
Ther was the revel and the melodye;
And thus lith Alison and Nicholas,
In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas

Medieval workers also took comfort in their newfound economic power. “When I see articles lately, saying ‘Oh, well. Not as many people want to work at McDonald’s,’ it does remind me of the situation for peasants post-Black Death, where they’re saying, ‘Well, no one wants to do this really difficult, thankless job for no money,’” Janega said.

The Black Death created a shortage of workers, giving peasants options. Some demanded more pay, and often received it. “There was a persistent rise in wages starting a few years after the Black Death,” said Noel Johnson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University who has written about the economic aftermath of the Black Death. Others quit their jobs to work in cities.

The labor market squeeze created a problem for the wool industry, which required a lot of manual work to clean cloth in a process known as fulling. “It took a week to full a cloth by hand, with blokes hitting it with hammers,” said Christopher Dyer, emeritus professor of history at the University of Leicester. “You can imagine what a laborious job it was.”

Enter the breakthrough of the fulling mill, which used water power from rivers. “And they could do it in a few hours with a machine,” Dyer said.

These mills proliferated, not just because they saved labor, but because peasants with newly earned money wanted to buy fancy clothes that were newly in vogue. “It starts with the aristocracy, but it spreads to the rest of society, is to have tighter, more figure-hugging garments,” Dyer said. “And people were shocked.”

Like many innovations, the fulling mill had a lasting impact. It was developed in an area called Gloucestershire, which became known for making red cloth, as well as red coats for the British Army. Flash forward to the Revolutionary War …

“The Americans cheated by hiding behind trees and dressing in brown, but the British sort of stood there in their red coats and got shot,” Dyer said. “Well, those red coats were made in this Gloucestershire district, which had developed the fulling mill in the 14th century.”

The post-Black Death period saw the mass take-up of many gadgets that were already on the scene, making scarce workers more productive: take eyeglasses for factory workers, horse collars for more efficient farmers, and crossbows for soldiers.

“Eyeglasses are invented in the 13th century in Italy, so before the Black Death,” Johnson said. “But they are produced in greater and greater number” after the plague.

Historian Patrick Wyman, host of the podcast “Tides of History,” said the labor shortage at the time lasted well after the pandemic ended around 1353.

“There were still plague outbreaks well into the 17th and even in some cases the 18th century,” Wyman said. “All of this is combining to make sure that the population stayed lower than it had been. That labor costs stayed higher.”

To Wyman, the biggest breakthrough of the era: the Gutenberg press in 1450. “The printing press is very much a product of this post-plague world,” Wyman said. “If you’ve got to pay a scribe a higher wage, then suddenly it makes sense to look for new ways of kind of mass producing books.”

John Lienhard, emeritus professor of technology and culture at the University of Houston, said Gutenberg was “the end product of what was going on around him.”

“By the way, Gutenberg was not trying to bring reading to the general public; he was trying to make a buck by counterfeiting handwritten books,” Lienhard said.

Historians are quick to note that technological breakthroughs tend to have multiple causes: scarce workers, new customers with new ambitions, wars. But Wyman said the Black Death shocked the economy and “reset” society, which — like today — created space for innovators to exploit.

And these breakthroughs came alongside a new consuming class of workers who purchased more of everything, including food and drink.

“They had more wine on the table, which is a good thing,” said Samuel Cohn, professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow. “There is more meat, there is more fish, which is the most expensive thing.”

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