What was the reason for inflation in Britain after the Black Death?

What was the reason for inflation in Britain after the Black Death?

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According to the Wikipedia article Ordinance of Labourers 1349

During this outbreak [of Black Death], an estimated 30-40% of the population died. The decline in population left surviving workers in great demand in the agricultural economy of Britain.

Landowners had to face the choice of raising wages to compete for workers or letting their lands go unused. Wages for labourers rose and translated into inflation across the economy as goods became more expensive to produce. The wealthy elites suffered under the sudden economic shift. Difficulties in hiring labour created frustration. John Gower commented on post-plague labourers: "they are sluggish, they are scarce, and they are grasping. For the very little they do they demand the highest pay."

If the number of labourers and landowners was reduced by the same factor, it could only improve the life quality of everyone since more land was available per person. The only scenario I can conceive of which would be disadvantageous for the nobility, is that they were hit less hard by the plague than the workers. Thus there would be less workers per noble, which would be advantageous for the former and disadvantageous for the later. Is that indeed the case? If so, why were the nobles spared?

Inflation has been defined as "too much money chasing too few goods," or in this case, "too few people."

The supply of money, M, was fixed by the number of coins in circulation, which in turn was limited by the amount of available precious metals. When one third of the population, P, died off suddenly, the former relation of M to P became M/(2/3 P), meaning there was 50% more money in circulation per person. If people had formerly been fully employed in producing goods, G, that would also change the relationship of M/G to M/(2/3 G), again, 50% more M per good. That's why goods and wages would rise about 50% in monetary terms. They probably rose less in "real" terms (after the resulting inflation).

The nobles complained because they had most of the money (and most of the land). With a sudden shortage of labor, the nobles' land and money didn't go as far, causing "inflation." The laborers prospered, but few of them could read or write, so we don't hear their side of the story.


You said, "it could only improve the life quality of everyone since more land was available per person." - that would only be true if the two classes benefitted equally from the land. That is an assumption that will lead you very far astray. @Stefan has provided an extended example. Essentially however, if the benefit of land was skewed 90% nobility 10% commoner, then the quality of life of the nobility is reduced FAR more than the quality of life of the commoner. (this is apart from the fact that it is very difficult to reduce quality of life below subsistence; at a certain point, quality of life is "sticky downwards".)

Serious Answer

You assert,

If the number of labourers and landowners was reduced by the same factor, it could only improve the life quality of everyone since more land was available per person.

I don't think this is a supportable assertion. Let us assume that prior to the black death land was fully utilized (that is to say the cost of bringing another unit of land under cultivation/production would cost more than it was worth.) After the black death, 1/3 of the population is dead. The simplistic assumption is that the population will continue to cultivate 2/3 of the land and everything will continue as before.

Reality is a bit more complex.

  • Loss of specialization. I don't have citations, but I'll assume that most non-farming skills were represented by the minimum number of people. Skilled labor requires a production surplus, and the point of a feudal economy is to direct production surplus to the noble class; laboring classes are to be held at the minimum subsistence level. Every skilled laborer (baker, miller, blacksmith, etc.) lost to the plague cannot be replaced. Skilled professionals can be induced to move (Town A hires a journeyman blacksmith from town B). Effectively speaking, the only way to move skilled labor is to raise compensation (wages & non-wage benefits). Surges in labor wages will create inflation unless the central bank eases monetary policy. (For simplicity, let's assume that the central bank is ineffective. They're crippled by a specie based economy and lack the underlying theory )
  • Sticky standard of living. When standards of living rise, people are happy; when standards of living fall, people act to preserve their standard of living. Historically this trend is more effective than it appears on the surface. People are much more likely to act to prevent loss than they are to facilitate gain. This is where the flaw in your assumption is really important; Nobles have the political and economic power to preserve their standard of living despite the drop in cultivated land. This is reinforced by their discovery of the limits of their political power. If they ate meat 3/week prior to the plague, they expect to continue to eat meat 3/week after the plague, despite the loss of 1/3 of the cropland. The only way to maintain that standard of living in the face of a decreased labor supply is to acquire labor. In the short term, estates are consolidated from those who have died to those who have survived; in the medium term, the only way to preserve the standard of living is to acquire more labor, through conquest, or through promising greater benefits. (I'm uncomfortable discussing the "wages" of peasants, but that requires discussion of serfdom, chattel and other concepts that are more complex than we want to deal with here).
  • Unequal consequences. The plague killed 90% in some regions and < 10% in others. That means that in some towns there was actually a surplus of labor, and in other towns there was a severe scarcity. Both surplus and existential scarcity will always affect prices. Surplus labor will move to where it can be more productive. It was technically illegal for a peasant to move to another estate, but practically speaking, the peasants would move to where they perceived their best advantage. That had the effect of forcing a rise in the price of unskilled labor (And a secondary effect of weakening the political restrictions on unskilled labor, which threatened the standard of living of the noble classes, which reinforced all the other effects mentioned.) In regions where the labor supply fell below the minimum necessary to surive, there were three alternatives. (1) dissolve, and move to a new location (as above, this increases the effective cost of labor), (2) Acquire new labor (which directly raises the cost of labor), or (3) vanish from the economy, which had severe social consequences; for example, if you drop out of society, you lose the social civil contract - you have no recompense against brigands, you lose the benefit of religious services, and your chance of begetting children drop radically.
  • Diversity of skill. In both skilled and unskilled labor, some individuals are more productive than others. In times of labor scarcity, this drives their wages up significantly. Even if the local labor pool is simple and stable (what you describe), very good farmers have at least the option of illegally moving to an estate where they have the chance to become yeomen. Some nobles attempted to enforce the law, and discovered that this made their most productive farmers more likely to flee to somewhere they would be rewarded. (in a conflict between economics and regulation, long term, bet on economics).
  • Land quality differs - those who remain alive will selectively cultivate the most productive land, allowing the least productive land to go fallow. Productivity will appear to rise somewhat, although probably not very significantly. I mention this for completeness.
  • Capital deepening. Those who remain will also have roughly 1/3 more tools. For example, the plow which was shared amoung 10 villagers previously is now shared among 7 villagers. This results in a rise in productivity, and a rise in wealth.

Summary: Scarcity creates an upward pressure on labor compensation. In the absence of a skillfully managed monetary policy, that upward pressure will cause a rise in overall prices (inflation).

The question of the economic consequences of the black death is perhaps one of the most fascinating I can imagine. Just as, if not more fascinating, is the interplay of politics and economics, and what we learn about being a human animal.

The classical answer

This is a classic wage price spiral arising from a supply shock. The death of 1/3 of the laboring class resulted in in a reduction of the supply for labor, and a resulting rise in the demand for labor. According to classical economics the rise in the demand for labor should have caused labor to flow to the affected area.

Of course this is also an illustration of where classical economics doesn't apply. Prices (including the price of labor) in the period were set by custom and law. It was illegal for labor to move from one employer to another. Ken Follett described this rather well in Pillars of the Earth (or possibly World Without End; the books blur in my memory). This is an excellent example of public choice economics; those with political power use it to protect their privilege against threats which emerge from economic constraints. See also Rent Seeking

Many current studies of rent-seeking focus on efforts to capture various monopoly privileges stemming from government regulation of a market. The term itself derives, however, from the far older practice of appropriating a portion of production by gaining ownership or control of land.

What passes for a humorous answer

Of course the plague struck throughout the labor market, raising the price of labor everywhere. There were very few places where Britain could have imported labor. Production of labor remains constrained by the very inefficient labor production mechanism - it takes 10-15 years to produce a new unit of labour (and in the time period, approximately 50% of the new production of labour failed to pass quality testing). Modern labor production is more reliable, but legal restrictions impose a minimum 16 year cycle on the production of new labor. Although production of new labor has been effectively restricted to less than 50% of the population, analysis of the data fails to demonstrate a significant increase in the welfare of those who have a monopoly on the production of new labor.

This is also a case where it is difficult to justify Friedman's Maxim "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.", and is therefore an interesting test case. The knee-jerk response to inflation is to contract the money supply. This is very difficult to do in a specie economy.

Final notes

  1. This is fundamentally a question about labor and the history of labor; I hope that @SamuelRussell will weigh in. This is one of the periods of history where his analysis is probably going to be more accurate than mine.
  2. Someone asked why the relative situation matters - I have no clue how to prove this, but the only useful assumption in economics is that humans will always pay attention to relative wealth. There are entire cultures built on this notion (e.g. the Navajo, who condemn any person who is more wealthy than his neighbors). This is a way deeper topic that I'm not qualified to answer, but the only safe assumption is that a significant fraction of the population is willing to act to preserve/acquire relative wealth differences.

This is a very simplified example but hopefully it will help:

Assume that there are 10 nobles and 100 workers. Each noble has 10 fields and uses at least 1 worker per field.

Nobles have financial commitments and a standard of living which they wish to maintain. They pay the workers 1 pound a week to work on the fields and each field is equally profitable.

Workers cannot easily move around as nobles elsewhere are paying roughly the same and already have manpower so the wage is fairly static. The good and sundries that workers can by is within their price range as there is no point charging more as they will not be able to buy it.

Lets assume that your calculation about the ratio of deaths is equal and each class loses 50% of its members.

There are now 5 nobles, 50 workers (25 of which have no nobleman to work for)- each noble still has 10 fields which requires at least 1 worker per field.

Now each noble now only has 5 workers and therefore has 5 empty fields and will therefore make less money but they still have their commitments and standard of living which they wish to maintain.


There are various workers which no longer have anywhere to work but still need to feed their families.

Nobleman #1 is called Alfred has the idea that he can pay these people to come and work for him. Nobleman #2 is called Bill and has the same idea.

Alfred offers them 1 pound to work on his field, Bill offers them 2 pounds. The rest of Alfred's and Bill's workers realise that they have power - they are a scarce resource so they contact noblemen 3,4,5 (Charles, Dave and Edward) and ask how much they would offer. Edward realises the value of having more than 1 worker per field now that they can buy them on the free market and begin buying up the finite labour source as an investment as he had the backing capital to do it, unlike poor Alfred.

Eventually Alfred manages to persuade 6 workers to work for him at the extortionate price of 6 pounds per week. Hence he was paying 10 pounds a week for 10 fields worth, he is now paying 36 pounds a week for 6 fields worth. This is awful and he cannot afford to buy that new set of armour. He tells everyone who will listen how greedy and lazy the workers are.

The workers who work for Alfred now have 6 times the buying power they had before so they go to the market/tavern/whatever and buy everything in site. The next week the owners of the market have felt the effect of the increase in cost of workers and have to charge more for the goods to make a profit hence everything becomes more expensive. If the market owners think they can get away with it they also tag some extra on the increase to make some extra money.

Suddenly Alfred's workers are not that rich in real terms and demand a pay rise or they will leave and work for Edward who is desperately offering massive amounts of money to anyone who will work for him.

However, everytime they get a pay rise to buy more things the cost of making things goes up (as their wages are part of the cost) and an inflation spiral begins.

Due to the massive increase in prices at the market and the cost of labour the noblemen find that they are not able to make as much profit as before and struggle to afford to pay the worker enough to keep them let alone maintain their standard of living. Hence they are far worse off.

Workers are better off but the inflated costs of good is crippling some people who cannot get the high wages for whatever reason.

What was the reason for inflation in Britain after the Black Death? - History

Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists

Pandemics, places, and populations: Evidence from the Black Death

Rémi Jedwab, Noel Johnson, Mark Koyama 08 May 2019

The Black Death killed 40% of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1352, but little is known about its spatial effects. The column uses variation in Plague mortality at the city level to explore the short-run and long-run impacts on city growth. After less than 200 years the impact of Black Death mortality in cities was close to zero, but the rate of urban recovery depended on advantages that favoured trade.


The Black Death was the largest demographic shock in European history, killing approximately 40% of the region's population between 1347 and 1352. Some regions and cities were spared, but others were severely hit: England, France, Italy and Spain lost between 50% and 60% of their populations in two years. While the Black Death has been extensively studied by historians and social scientists (Benedictow 2005, Voth and Voigtlander 2013), we don't know much about its spatial effects, due to the lack of disaggregated data on mortality. Because they are so rare, we don't know much about the economic effects of any continent-wide pandemics.

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JEL classification:

  • E3 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles
  • E4 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates
  • E5 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit
  • I1 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health
  • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty
  • J1 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics
  • J2 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor
  • J3 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs
  • J4 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets
  • N1 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics Industrial Structure Growth Fluctuations
  • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy
  • N4 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation

NEP fields

  • NEP-CBA-2006-06-03 (Central Banking)
  • NEP-HIS-2006-06-03 (Business, Economic & Financial History)
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The Black Death of 1348 to 1350

In Medieval England, the Black Death was to kill 1.5 million people out of an estimated total of 4 million people between 1348 and 1350. No medical knowledge existed in Medieval England to cope with the disease. After 1350, it was to strike England another six times by the end of the century. Understandably, peasants were terrified at the news that the Black Death might be approaching their village or town.

The Black Death is the name given to a deadly plague (often called bubonic plague, but is more likely to be pneumonic plague) which was rampant during the Fourteenth Century. It was believed to have arrived from Asia in late 1348 and caused more than one epidemic in that century – though its impact on English society from 1348 to 1350 was terrible. No amount of medical knowledge could help England when the plague struck. It was also to have a major impact on England’s social structure which lead to the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

Up until recently the Black Death was thought to have been caused by fleas carried by rats that were very common in towns and cities. When the fleas bit into their victims, it was thought they were literally injecting them with the disease.

However evidence produced by forensic scientists and archaeologists in 2014 from human remains in the north of the City of London suggests that fleas could not actually have been responsible for an infection that spread so fast – it had to be airborne. Once the disease reached the lungs of the malnourished, it was then spread to the wider population through sneezes and coughs.

Whatever the cause of the infection, death was often very quick for the weaker victims. By Spring 1349 the Black Death had killed six out of every ten Londoners.

It symptoms were described in 1348 by a man called Boccaccio who lived in Florence, Italy:

“The first signs of the plague were lumps in the groin or armpits. After this, livid black spots appeared on the arms and thighs and other parts of the body. Few recovered. Almost all died within three days, usually without any fever.”

Written evidence from the time indicates that nearly all the victims died within three days though a small number did last for four days.

Why did the plague spread so quickly?

In towns and cities people lived very close together and they knew nothing about contagious diseases. If they did, they would have avoided close contact with others (staying at least a metre apart) if they themselves were ill or if others around them were ill. They would also have been careful to cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

Additionally, the disposal of bodies was very crude and helped to spread the disease still further as those who handled the dead bodies did not protect themselves in any way.

Lack of medical knowledge meant that people tried anything to help them escape the disease. One of the more extreme was the flagellants. These people wanted to show their love of God by whipping themselves, hoping that God would forgive them their sins and that they would be spared the Black Death.

Flagellants hoping to escape the Black Death

The Black Death had a huge impact on society. Fields went unploughed as the men who usually did this were victims of the disease. Harvests would not have been brought in as the manpower did not exist. Animals would have been lost as the people in a village would not have been around to tend them.

Therefore whole villages would have faced starvation. Towns and cities would have faced food shortages as the villages that surrounded them could not provide them with enough food. Those lords who lost their manpower to the disease, turned to sheep farming as this required less people to work on the land. Grain farming became less popular – this, again, kept towns and cities short of such basics as bread. One consequence of the Black Death was inflation – the price of food went up creating more hardship for the poor. In some parts of England, food prices went up by four times.

Those who survived the Black Death believed that there was something special about them – almost as if God had protected them. Therefore, they took the opportunity offered by the disease to improve their lifestyle.

Feudal law stated that peasants could only leave their village if they had their lord’s permission. Now many lords were short of desperately needed labour for the land that they owned. After the Black Death, lords actively encouraged peasants to leave the village where they lived to come to work for them. When peasants did this, the lord refused to return them to their original village.

Peasants could demand higher wages as they knew that a lord was desperate to get in his harvest.

So the government faced the prospect of peasants leaving their villages to find a better ‘deal’ from a lord thus upsetting the whole idea of the Feudal System which had been introduced to tie peasants to the land. Ironically, this movement by the peasants was encouraged by the lords who were meant to benefit from the Feudal System.

To curb peasants roaming around the countryside looking for better pay, the government introduced the Statute of Labourers in 1351 that stated:

No peasants could be paid more than the wages paid in 1346. No lord or master should offer more wages than paid in 1346. No peasants could leave the village they belonged to.

Though some peasants decided to ignore the statute, many knew that disobedience would lead to serious punishment. This created great anger amongst the peasants which was to boil over in 1381 with the Peasants Revolt. Hence, it can be argued that the Black Death was to lead to the Peasants Revolt.

Black Death quarantine: how did we try to contain the most deadly disease in history?

People across the globe are self-isolating to help stop the spread of coronavirus. But, says historian Helen Carr, the practice of quarantine is nothing new. Here she explores how it was used alongside other measures in the 14th century to curb the disease that became known as the Black Death…

This competition is now closed

Published: March 30, 2020 at 10:15 am

In the autumn of 1348 a ship glided into the port of Southampton in England, carrying a disease from the east that had already ravaged the western world. It had killed men, women and children in their thousands quickly and mercilessly. This was the bubonic plague, identified by the blackening ‘buboes’ that formed within the joint area of an infected person – the groin or armpit were the most common places. These were accompanied by bodily aches, cold, lethargy and a high fever. When the infection got into the blood stream it effectively poisoned the blood, leading to probable death. Some survived the infection but most people died within days, sometimes hours. This wave of bubonic plague became known then as the Pestilence – or later, the Black Death.

By November 1348 the disease had reached London, and by New Year’s Day 1349 around 200 bodies a day were being piled into mass graves outside the city. Henry Knighton, an Augustinian monk, witnessed the devastation of the Black Death in England: “there was a general mortality throughout the world… sheep and oxen strayed through the fields and among the crops and there was none to drive them off or collect them, but they perished in uncounted numbers… for lack of shepherds… After the Pestilence many buildings fell into total ruin for lack of inhabitants similarly many small villages and hamlets became desolate and no homes were left in them, for all those who had dwelt anthem (sic) were dead.”

The countryside went to ruin, with crops, livestock and produce dying for lack of people to tend to them. Towns were abandoned, left only with the dead to occupy them, and war with France – the first part of the later-named Hundred Years’ War – was put on hold. England and the rest of Europe was forced to come to terms with an epidemic of an apocalyptic nature that drastically changed the landscape of society.

In a bid to take control of the epidemic, Edward III, king of England as the time, was forced to turn his attention to domestic matters. Before the outbreak in England, his daughter Princess Joan had contracted plague after her ship docked in Bordeaux. She was on her way to marry Peter of Castile as part of a diplomatic marriage alliance between the two kingdoms. She never reached Castile and, upon discovery that the plague had taken hold of Bordeaux, she took refuge in a small village called Loremo, where she died alongside a large part of her entourage.

The king was devastated by the news and acted quickly and decisively to try to curb the outbreak in England. The 1349 January parliament was postponed until Easter (however, when spring came parliament was still empty.) Officials fled to their homes in the country and sheriffs refused to conduct their business for fear of their lives. The country was in lockdown and the people looked to the king to support them in the crisis.

Edward’s response was rational: he suspected that poor public hygiene was responsible for the epidemic. In a bid to tackle the spread of infection, he opposed the idea of digging a burial pit for the plague victims in East Smithfield – it being in close proximity to the Tower of London and surrounding residential areas. Pits were dug further away, the largest one in Smithfield. In 1349 Edward III wrote to the Mayor of London directing him to have the streets thoroughly cleaned, for they were “foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisioned (sic) to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease”.

Overseas, further precautions were taken. In Italy in 1347, almost a year before the plague reached England, ports began to turn away ships, fearful that they carried the deadly disease. By March 1348, these protective measures were formalised and Venice became the first city to close its ports to incoming vessels. Those they did admit were subjected to 30 days of isolation, later raised to 40, which eventually lead to the birth of the term ‘quarantine’, for ships were forced to wait in the middle of the Venetian lagoon before they were permitted to disembark. Remote cemeteries were dug and in a later outbreak, the Venetians even went as far as establishing a quarantine island on Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon. An excavation in 2007 revealed more than 1,500 skeletons, all supposedly victims of bubonic plague. Thousands more are believed to remain below ground on the island.

However, these measures were too little too late. Plague still took hold in Venice – as it did globally – killing an estimated 100,000 people, a catastrophic proportion of the Venetian population.

Which parts of England were affected by plague?

England shared the same fate. In 1300 the population had reached around five million, and by 1377 this was reduced to 2.5 million. Plague had claimed half of the population, wiping out entire families, villages and even towns such as Bristol. The measures that were taken to hinder the spread of the first Black Death epidemic were powerless, but there were contingency plans for future outbreaks later in history.

In 1563, when plague struck again (as the disease did most years, although some outbreaks were more severe than others), the lord mayor ordered that blue crosses should be attached to doors of houses that held anyone infected with plague over the past week. Inhabitants were to stay indoors for one month after the death or infection of anyone in the building. Only one uninfected person was allowed out of the house, in order to buy provisions for the sick or healing. To mark their health they were meant to carry a white rod, which if they forgot would incur a fine or even imprisonment. In 1539 plague struck London again and houses were to be incarcerated for 40 days – the typical quarantine period stipulated in 14th-century Venice. By 1580 shipping was heavily monitored, and crews and passengers were quarantined either on board their vessels or in the port where they had disembarked. Merchants were kept at the port of Rye and were prohibited from entering the city, and all goods were to be aired in order not to transport infection. Movement was also monitored within the country – travellers into London from outside counties were prohibited if there was known to be plague in their area.

Outbreaks of plague continued into the 17th century, the most savage and famous being the 1665–56 epidemic. In 1630, quarantine measures were taken in London, with the Privy Council ordering that again houses were shut up when those inside were infected. However, to enforce the order, guards were to be stationed outside the infected house. This was soon replaced with the order that the people inside were to be sent to the Pest House (an enclosed hospital for those suffering from the plague) while the house was closed up. More famously, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire bravely imposed a self-quarantine in order to prevent the spread of infection into other villages, losing 260 villagers in the process.

Over four centuries, plague devastated the lives of millions, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, there was little to be done in order to control the spread of such virulent infection. People blamed themselves, usually in the belief that they were being punished by God for their sins – some even believed that the epidemic was an apocalypse.

Although today plague has generally ceased to exist, there was an outbreak in the US in 1924, and in India as late as 1994, killing 52 people and causing mass panic as people fled out of fear of infection. However, we do not tend to experience the rate of mortality seen in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. With the advancement of modern medicine and practical contingency, we hope that bio-medical disaster remains as history.

Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer

Society turned upside down

Following the plague we find a clear sense of society turned upside down in England. The rulers of the kingdom reacted strongly. Some elements of legislation indicate a measure of panic. Within a year of the onset of plague, during 1349, an Ordinance of Labourers was issued and this became the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This law sought to prevent labourers from obtaining higher wages. Despite the shortage in the workforce caused by the plague, workers were ordered to take wages at the levels achieved pre-plague. Landlords gained in the short term from payments on the deaths of their tenants (heriots), but 'rents dwindled, land fell waste for want of tenants who used to cultivate it' (Higden) and '. many villages and hamlets were deserted. and never inhabited again'. Consequently, landed incomes fell. The bulging piles of manorial accounts which survive for the period of the Black Death testify to the active land-market and the additional administration caused by the onset of plague. But all too often the administration consists of noting defaults of rent because of plague (defectus causa pestilencie).

. many villages and hamlets were deserted. and never inhabited again.

It has been argued that the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism. This was the system of service in return for a grant of land, burdening the peasant with many obligations to his lord. For example, payments were due on entering a land holding, upon marriage and death and on many other occasions. The Black Death did not start the process of the commutation (substitution) of a money payment for labour and other services. However, there is no doubt that the plague speeded up the process by reducing dramatically the numbers of peasants and artisans. By how much commutation accelerated is still a matter of fierce debate.

Government and landlords tried to keep the lid on rising wages and changing social aspirations. Lords and peasants alike were indicted for taking higher wages. In 1363 a Sumptuary Law was brought through parliament. This measure decreed not only the quality and colour of cloth that lay people at different levels of society (below the nobility) should use in their attire but also sought to limit the common diet to basics. Such legislation could only occur when the government had observed upwardly-mobile dress among the lower orders. Such legislation was virtually impossible to enforce, but indicates that among those who survived the plague there was additional wealth, from higher wages and from accumulated holdings of lands formerly held by plague victims.

In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales of 1387 the well-known Prologue describes the dress of each pilgrim. Arguably, it demonstrates that apart from the knight, the poor parson and the ploughman, who personify each of the three traditional divisions of medieval society, every pilgrim is dressed more grandly that the Sumptuary Law would allow. The Canterbury Tales came six years after the Great Revolt of 1381 in which rebellion flared throughout much of England, the Kent and Essex men invaded London, chopped off Archbishop Sudbury's head and terrified the fourteen-year-old Richard II into agreeing concessions on the Poll Tax and other matters. The Poll Tax was an unsuccessful attempt by the government to combat the effects of plague by changing the basis of taxation from a charge on communities (many much less populous following successive plagues), with a tax on individuals who had survived. Chaucer, the court poet, was very aware of the anxieties of the elite in the new post-plague society. His Canterbury pilgrims, as the courtiers encountered them, were arranged 'by rank and degree' and sent back down the road to Canterbury in perfect order, led by the knight: precisely the opposite to the unruly mob which had marched up from Canterbury in 1381.

The Black Death in England 1348-1350

In 1347 a Genoese ship from Caffa, on the Black Sea, came ashore at Messina, Sicily. The crew of the ship, what few were left alive, carried with them a deadly cargo, a disease so virulent that it could kill in a matter of hours.

It is thought that the disease originated in the Far East, possibly in the Gobi Desert, and was spread along major trade routes to Caffa, where Genoa had an established trading post. When it became clear that ships from the East carried the plague, Messina closed its port. The ships were forced to seek safe harbour elsewhere around the Mediterranean, and the disease was able to spread quickly.

During the Medieval period the plague went by several names, the most common being "the Pestilence" and "The Great Mortality". Theories about the cause of the disease were numerous, ranging from a punishment from God to planetary alignment to evil stares. Not surprisingly, many people believed that the horrors of the Black Death signalled the Apocalypse, or end of time. Others believed that the disease was a plot by Jews to poison all of the Christian world, and many Jews were killed by panicked mobs.

The truth
The Black Death is a bacteria-borne disease the bacteria in question being Yersinia pestis, which was carried in the blood of wild black rats and the fleas that lived off the rats. Normally there is no contact between these fleas and human beings, but when their rat hosts die, these fleas are forced to seek alternatives - including humans!

The symptoms
The plague produces several different symptoms in its victims. Bubonic, the most common form of the plague, produces fist-sized swellings, called buboes, at the site of flea bites - usually in the groin, armpits, or neck. The swellings are intensely painful, and the victims die in 2-6 days. The buboes are red at first but later turn a dark purple or black. This black colouring gives the "Black Death" its name.

Pneumonic plague occurs when the infection enters the lungs, causing the victim to vomit blood. Infected pneumonic people can spread the disease through the air by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing! In Septicemic plague the bacteria enters the person's bloodstream, causing death within a day.

The speed with which the disease could kill was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The Italian author Boccaccio claimed that the plague victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."

The Black Death reaches England
The summer of 1348 was abnormally wet. Grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so adversely affected, it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. But a far worse enemy was set to appear.

It isn't clear exactly when or where the Black Death reached England. Some reports at the time pointed to Bristol, others to Dorset. The disease may have appeared as early as late June or as late as August 4. We do know that in mid-summer the Channel Islands were reeling under an outbreak of the plague. From this simple beginning, the disease spread throughout England with dizzying speed and fatal consequences.

The effect was at its worst in cities, where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided its spread. On November 1 the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the city's population of 70,000 inhabitants succumbed.

Over the next two years, the disease killed between 30-40% of the entire population. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2,000,000 dead.

One of the worst aspects of the disease to the medieval Christian mind is that people died without last rites and without having a chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the plague because so many perished without the benefit of clergy. People were allowed to confess their sins to one another, or "even to a woman".

The death rate was exceptionally high in isolated populations like prisons and monasteries. It has been estimated that up to two-thirds of the clergy of England died within a single year.

Peasants fled their fields. Cattle were left to fend for themselves, and crops left to rot. The monk Henry of Knighton declared, "Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them."

The Border Scots saw the pestilence in England as a punishment of God on their enemies. An army gathered near Stirling to strike while England lay defenceless. But before the Scots could march, the plague decimated their ranks. Pursued by English troops, the Scots fled north, spreading the plague deep into their homeland.

In an effort to assuage the wrath of God, many people turned to public acts of penitence. Processions lasting as long as three days were authorized by the Pope to mollify God, but the only real effect of these public acts was to spread the disease further.

By the end of 1350 the Black Death had subsided, but it never really died out in England for the next several hundred years. There were further outbreaks in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. It was not until the late 17th century that England became largely free of serious plague epidemics.

It is impossible to overstate the terrible effects of the Black Death on England. With the population so low, there were not enough workers to work the land. As a result, wages and prices rose. The Ordinances of Labourers (1349) tried to legislate a return to pre-plague wage levels, but the overwhelming shortage of labourers meant that wages continued to rise. Landowners offered extras such as food, drink, and extra benefits to lure labourers. The standard of living for labourers rose accordingly.

The nature of the economy changed to meet the changing social conditions. Land that had once been farmed was now given over to pasture, which was much less labour-intensive. This helped boost the cloth and woollen industry. With the fall in population, most landowners were not getting the rental income they needed, and were forced to lease their land.

Peasants benefited through increased employment options and higher wages. Society became more mobile, as peasants moved to accept work where they could command a good wage. In some cases, market towns disappeared or suffered a decline despite the economic boom in rural areas.

It has been estimated that 40% of England's priests died in the epidemic. This left a large gap, which was hastily filled with underqualified and poorly trained applicants, accelerating the decline in church power and influence that culminated in the English Reformation. Many survivors of the plague were also disillusioned by the church's inability to explain or deal with the outbreak.

The short-term economic prosperity did not last the underlying feudal structure of society had not changed, and by the mid-15th century standards of living had fallen again. Yet for most levels of English society, the Black Death represented a massive upheaval, one which changed the face of English society in a profound way.

Medieval Britain - from 'A History of the British Nation' (1912)
Medieval attractions in Britain (places to see tagged with 'medieval')

It Got Better: Life Improved After Black Death, Study Finds

The Black Death, a plague that first devastated Europe in the 1300s, had a silver lining. After the ravages of the disease, surviving Europeans lived longer, a new study finds.

An analysis of bones in London cemeteries from before and after the plague reveals that people had a lower risk of dying at any age after the first plague outbreak compared with before. In the centuries before the Black Death, about 10 percent of people lived past age 70, said study researcher Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina. In the centuries after, more than 20 percent of people lived past that age.

"It is definitely a signal of something very important happening with survivorship," DeWitte told Live Science. [Images: 14th-Century Black Death Graves]

The plague years

The Black Death, caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, first exploded in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The estimated number of deaths ranges from 75 million to 200 million, or between 30 percent and 50 percent of Europe's population. Sufferers developed hugely swollen lymph nodes, fevers and rashes, and vomited blood. The symptom that gave the disease its name was black spots on the skin where the flesh had died.

Scientists long believed that the Black Death killed indiscriminately. But DeWitte's previous research found the plague was like many sicknesses: It preferentially killed the very old and those already in poor health.

That discovery raised the question of whether the plague acted as a "force of selection, by targeting frail people," DeWitte said. If people's susceptibility to the plague was somehow genetic &mdash perhaps they had weaker immune systems, or other health problems with a genetic basis &mdash then those who survived might pass along stronger genes to their children, resulting in a hardier post-plague population.

In fact, research published in February in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the plague did write itself into human genomes: The descendants of plague-affected populations share certain changes in some immune genes.

Post-plague comeback

To test the idea, DeWitte analyzed bones from London cemeteries housed at the Museum of London's Centre for Human Bioarchaeology. She studied 464 skeletons from three burial grounds dating to the 11th and 12th centuries, before the plague. Another 133 skeletons came from a cemetery used after the Black Death, from the 14th into the 16th century.

These cemeteries provided a mix of people from different socioeconomic classes and ages.

The longevity boost seen after the plague could have come as a result of the plague weeding out the weak and frail, DeWitte said, or it could have been because of another plague side effect. With as much as half of the population dead, survivors in the post-plague era had more resources available to them. Historical documentation records an improvement in diet, especially among the poor, DeWitte said.

"They were eating more meat and fish and better-quality bread, and in greater quantities," she said.

Or the effect could be a combination of both natural selection and improved diet, DeWitte said. She's now starting a project to find out whether Europe's population was particularly unhealthy prior to the Black Death, and if health trends may have given the pestilence a foothold.

The Black Death was an emerging disease in the 14th century, DeWitte said, not unlike HIV or Ebola today. Understanding how human populations responded gives us more knowledge about how disease and humanity interact, she said. Y. pestis strains still cause bubonic plague today, though not at the pandemic levels seen in the Middle Ages.

"Diseases like the Black Death have the ability to powerfully shape human demography and human biology," DeWitte said.

What was the Black Death and when did it end?

The citizens of Toumai bury their dead during the black death. Miniature from manuscript, Belgium, 14th century

A Chinese city has issued an epidemic warning after a local farmer contracted bubonic plague, the virus that caused the Black Death.

The herdsman from the city of Bayan Nur in Inner Mongolia is now reportedly in a stable condition, but the area has been put under a level three warning for epidemic control as a precautionary measure, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

This warning is the second-lowest in a four-level system, but will stay in place until the end of the year, Xinhua reports. The same area was previously the scene of an outbreak of pneumonic plague in November 2019.

Officials in Bayan Nur are also investigating a second suspected case involving a 15-year-old who had apparently been in contact with a marmot hunted by a dog, the site says.

“At present, there is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city,” the local health authority said, according to the state-run China Daily. “The public should improve its self-protection awareness and ability, and report abnormal health conditions promptly.”

But we should not panic about a coronavirus-style outbreak just yet. “The bubonic plague was once the world’s most feared disease,” says the i newspaper. “However, the disease is now easily treated.”

What was the Black Death?

The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density.

Originating in China, the disease spread west along the trade routes across Europe and arrived on the British Isles from the English province of Gascony. It is believed to have been spread by flea-infected rats, as well as individuals who had been infected on the continent.

Although it was relatively well contained in the Isles, it achieved even greater potency when the virus became airborne as it meant it was more quickly spread from human to human.

In the years between 1346 and 1353, the plague destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event. One observer noted: “The living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead,” according to History Extra.

Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today: “The bubonic and pneumonic plague of the 14th Century. was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is still very much alive and well around the world and generally seen in animal populations, and transmitted by the bite of a flea.

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How did it end?

The most popular theory of how the plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.

Improvements in personal hygiene are also thought to have begun to take place during the pandemic, alongside the practice of cremations rather than burials due to the sheer number of bodies.

A common myth suggests that the plagues’ third epidemic was finally wiped out in London by the Great Fire of 1666.

It’s a good story, but sadly not true, says the Museum of London.

The number of people dying from the plague was already in decline before the fire, and people continued to die after it had been extinguished.

What is the Black Death’s legacy?

“A historical turning point, as well as a vast human tragedy, the Black Death of 1346-53 is unparalleled in human history,” says Ole J Benedictow at History Today.

It would take 200 years before Europe alone was able to replenish its population to pre-plague numbers. In addition to population losses, the world also suffered monumental setbacks in terms of labour, art, culture and the economy.

Where does the Black Death still exist?

From 2010 to 2015, there were 3,248 cases of the plague reported worldwide, resulting in 584 deaths, says the World Health Organisation.

Plague can still be found on all continents, except Oceania. There is a risk of human plague wherever the bacteria, an animal carrier and human population co-exist.

It is most common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru, and epidemics have occurred in Africa, Asia and South America. Since the 1990s, most human cases have occurred in Africa, says the WHO.

Madagascar is known for being home to the disease, and cases of bubonic plague are reported nearly every year in the country. Last year, a number cats in Wyoming, USA, were discovered with the plague, prompting warnings from state officials, says Pacific Standard magazine.

What can it teach us about coronavirus?

Serious plague outbreaks are confined to history, and the distant past is not our best source for educating current health officials on the science of virus containment.

But there are lessons to be learned from the plague on how we guard against xenophobia and persecution during outbreaks of disease. Already Europe has seen populists attempt to exploit the spread of coronavirus to call for closed borders.

Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini called for “armour-plated” borders, while Germany’s far-right AfD has said the spread of the virus is down to the “dogma of the open border”.

Anti-migrant sentiment is being stoked by the far-right and fears over the coronavirus. The Italian government quarantined 276 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya last week, despite them having had no connection to people or locations affected by the coronavirus.

Economic woes also go hand-in-hand with major pandemics. Last week, the Financial Times reported that the UK’s economy could shrink by 6.5% this year in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Citing a report by Deutsche Bank, the paper notes that the British economy contracted by a staggering 23.5% in 1349, at the height of the Black Death. The report notes that even the annual contraction after the financial crisis in 2009 - the largest since the Second World War - was “only” -4.2%.

However, Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg News says it is “impossible to predict if the virus will inject a welcome impatience into spending out of pay checks that are augmented by state support, or whether the global economy will get mired in deeper stagnation”, adding: “A disease that’s especially harsh on older people could alter global demographics, with as-yet-unpredictable consequences for pension savings and asset demand.”

He adds that the borrowing costs for large monarchies fell to 8%-10% by the early 16th century from 20%-30% before the Black Death, while “Florence, Venice and Genoa as well as cities in Germany and Holland saw rates slump to 4% from 15%”.

Writing of coronavirus: “Even if 1% of infections prove to have been fatal by the time the coronavirus is contained, the disease would likely cast a lasting shadow on behavior, preferences, prices… and yes, interest rates.”

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