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


As business owners and rigid workers grapple with what a post-COVID economy will look like, historians suggest it’s instructive to look back at the scourge of all plagues, the 14th-century Black Death and innovations long term that it helped foster.

In medieval Europe, the term “revenge spending” may not yet have entered the lexicon, but it appears to have existed after the Black Death, which killed about one in two people between 1346 and Approximately 1353.

“It’s kind of like a YOLO thing,” said Eleanor Janega, historian and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, referring to the popular acronym for “you only live once”. “They know very well that they can die at any time. So there is a kind of “if not now, when” attitude.

Just like today, when heaps of Americans are dying to run away, say, to Miami Beach or Yellowstone, the peasants of the day took on religious trips or pilgrimages after the plague. . Who weren’t always so religious.

“Medieval people like to go on pilgrimage, it’s basically like a vacation for them,” Janega said. “Maybe they’ll try to pick someone up. They will have fun. Maybe have some sex. They’re definitely going to drink, and they’re going to come home with this amazing story.

In fact, someone who lived through the Black Death wrote one of the most famous fictional stories of all time: Tales of Canterbury, by Geoffrey Chaucer – this is about a group of traveling pilgrims. The book’s most famous tale, Miller’s Tale, plunges into debauchery and adultery. An extract:

Ladder Doun stalks Nicholay,
And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde;
Without words they go to bed
There like the carpenter is used to lying.
There was the party and the melody;
And so with Alison and Nicholas,
In bisyness of myrthe and solas

Medieval workers were also comforted by their new economic power. “When I see articles lately, I’m like, ‘Oh, well. Not many people want to work at McDonald’s, “it reminds me of the plight of peasants after the Black Death, where they say,” Well, no one wants to do this really hard and thankless job without money, “” Janega said.

The Black Death created a shortage of workers, giving peasants options. Some demanded a higher salary and received it often. “There was a persistent increase in wages from a few years after the Black Death,” said Noel Johnson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University who has written on the economic consequences of the Black Death. Others left their jobs to work in the cities.

The tightening labor market created a problem for the wool industry, which required a lot of manual labor to clean the fabric in a process called fulling. “It took a week to fill a rag in his hand, with guys hitting it with hammers,” said Christopher Dyer, professor emeritus of history at the University of Leicester. “You can imagine how laborious it was.”

Enter the breakthrough of the Fulling Mill, which used hydraulic energy from rivers. “And they could do it in a matter of hours with a machine,” Dyer said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There were still plague epidemics until the 17th and even in some cases the 18th century,” Wyman said. “It all comes together to make sure the population remains weaker than it used to be. That labor costs have remained higher.

For Wyman, the greatest breakthrough of the time: the Gutenberg press in 1450. “Printing is largely a product of this post-plague world,” Wyman said. “If you have to pay a scribe a higher salary, it suddenly makes sense to look for new ways to mass-produce books. “

John Lienhard, professor emeritus 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 wasn’t trying to bring reading to the general public; he was trying to make money by forging handwritten books, ”Lienhard said.

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

And with those breakthroughs came a new class of consumer workers who bought 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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