What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How Covid Will Change Politics

Nearly 700 years ago, Europe experienced the single most devastating pandemic in recorded human history. Within a timespan of roughly four years (1347–1351), an outbreak of plague tread an awful path across most of the continent, claiming the lives of about half of the population. Economic activities like mining and metallurgy came to a complete stop. In some cases, villages constructed around marginal agricultural lands were entirely abandoned, to be reclaimed by the forests. Chroniclers at the time referred to the event as the “Great Mortality” — today we know it as the Black Death.

Yet the legacy of the Black Death goes well beyond human suffering. The unparalleled pandemic did not just devastate the population in the areas it hit the hardest; it killed off entire social and economic institutions — especially ones that had, up until that point, restricted human freedom and stifled prosperity.

In recently published research, we trace out how the regions that experienced the worst mortality and the most extensive destruction began to look different from those that had fared better. In regions with the highest death toll, the power and social standing of workers went up precipitously, while exploitative labor practices crumbled. As a consequence, government, particularly at the local level, became significantly more democratic and inclusive — effects that could still be seen centuries later.

Today, we may be witnessing the early stages of a similar development. The recent surge in workers quitting low wage jobs, especially in the leisure and hospitality industries, has left employers scrambling to fill empty positions. Some suggest that the Covid pandemic and its fallout have, at least in the short run, augmented the bargaining power of labor. While the available evidence on this point is mixed (there has been only a modest increase in inflation-adjusted wage rates and little change to overall levels of inequality), the history of the Black Death suggests that pandemic-driven shifts in the labor supply can have important and long-lasting economic and political ramifications.

How precisely did the Black Death have this kind of impact? Medieval medicine understood neither how the plague spread nor how it could be treated. Today we know that plague is primarily transmitted to humans by infected rat fleas, but doctors in the 14th century commonly attributed the disease to poison in the air. Easily treated by antibiotics today, treatments at the time consisted of ineffective and potentially damaging procedures such as bloodletting. If allowed to take its course, plague has extremely high mortality — roughly 60 percent-70 percent of afflicted individuals will succumb to the disease. So when the plague entered Europe via trading routes with Central Asia, the result was a calamity of unfathomable magnitude.

The effects of mass death on the economic fortunes of workers were profound. On the eve of the Black Death, Europe was characterized by feudalism, a hierarchical social and economic system with military aristocrats (and the clergy) at the top and a large mass of peasant laborers at the bottom. Because the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, the elite’s capital was held almost exclusively as land. Peasants were tied to this land through a highly exploitative system of forced labor called serfdom, which demanded the uncompensated provision of labor and greatly restricted workers’ mobility.

The demographic collapse wrought by the Black Death was a fundamental shock to this system — at least it was in the areas where the toll of the plague was high. The basic laws of supply and demand explain why. In areas where the plague hit hard, it decimated the labor force. At the same time, the disease left the upper classes’ main capital asset, land, completely untouched. Thus, one factor of economic production, labor, suddenly became scarce and expensive, while the other, land, became abundant and cheap. The result was a massive increase in peasants’ bargaining power. Thus, workers were able to demand better working conditions, improve their access to land and, given the challenges elites faced in policing their movement, migrate to the cities. In the years immediately following the Black Death, serfdom collapsed and was replaced by a wage economy based on free labor.

Yet this reaction to the Black Death did not take place across the whole of Europe. Although much of Western Europe (including some western areas of what we now think of as Germany) suffered from the plague with particularly high intensity, leading to those massive changes to the bargaining power of labor, Eastern Europe, which was less exposed to trade and had sparser human settlement, saw significantly less death. Consequently, in the eastern parts of Europe, including the east of German-speaking Central Europe, the system of serfdom persisted for centuries longer than it did in the West.

These differences in labor freedom had important consequences for local politics and institutions. We find that areas of Central Europe that experienced high mortality from the Black Death — leading to an early end for serfdom — developed more inclusive political institutions at the local level, such as the use of elections to select city councils. These changes initially resulted from shifts in the organization of agriculture. In areas where the Black Death hit hard, elites were forced to decentralize much of the everyday control over agricultural management to the peasants themselves. This created a local need for coordination, since agricultural production at the village-level could only be successful if peasants agreed on the crops to be harvested and the division of labor in the agricultural round. As a consequence of these early experiences with self-governance, peasant villages began to demand the right to elect their own officials. Over time, this led to wider and wider participation in collective self-governance at the local level. Such experiences fostered a lasting culture of civic engagement and cooperation that proved essential for safeguarding the freedoms of laborers from future attempts by elites to roll back the gains won in the wake of the Black Death. In the southwest region of what is today Germany, for instance, the existence of institutions of local self-government allowed peasants to organize collectively to defend themselves against elites who would have returned them to the bondage of serfdom. They did so by collecting arms, forming armies and storming castles. This feat of collective organization — the Peasants’ War of 1525 — prevented the reimposition of labor coercion.

No comparable dynamic emerged in the areas that experienced low mortality from the Black Death, where serfdom ended late. Rather, in these areas, elites subjected peasants to an increasing array of exploitative labor obligations. Our research shows that the long-term effects of this major divergence in political cultures and institutional development was visible even centuries later: Citizens from regions that had a long tradition of democratic engagement rejected parties that were strongly antidemocratic in their orientation, such as Imperial Germany’s Conservative Party in the early 1870s or the National Socialists (i.e., the Nazi party) in the Weimar Republic’s fateful 1930 and July 1932 elections. In our analysis, the link between support for antidemocratic parties and the intensity of exposure to the Black Death holds irrespective of whether or not one takes into consideration factors such as pre-Black Death population densities and measures of exposure to trade. Moreover, we also make use of the fact that the Black Death had clear seasonal patterns and a decreasing intensity over time. These patterns allow us to infer the component of local mortality rates that is independent of specific political, economic, social or cultural conditions. When doing a new analysis that is based on this component of mortality rates only, we find very similar results and again confirm our theoretical expectations. For these reasons, we believe that the Black Death had a causal impact on long-run voting behavior.

The Southern German state of Württemberg offers a good example of these dynamics. Württemberg was hit especially hard by the Black Death. As a consequence, in many parts of the state, serfdom was replaced by peasant-led forms of local self-government. The workers’ greater independence and ability to organize collectively meant that Würrtemberg became one of the earliest and most important sites of the Peasants’ War of 1525, where the peasants defended their freedoms against the nobility. The state’s long political tradition of local participatory government helps explain why, at key moments in German history, it stood as a bastion for liberal values in otherwise highly illiberal times. At the founding of the German Empire, the highly antidemocratic Conservative Party was only able to achieve an average of 2.3 percent of the vote across Württemberg’s electoral districts in the 1871 election. This stands in stark contrast to the double-digit results and majorities that it achieved in the far eastern parts of Imperial Germany. In those areas, there had not been a comparable, longstanding experience with participatory government, which made it easier for antidemocratic forces to succeed. Similarly, in the 1930 election, the citizens of Württemberg strongly rejected the National Socialists, which only achieved 9.3 percent of Württemberg’s overall vote (the second-lowest among all major electoral districts of Weimar Germany), while the party’s nationwide average was twice as high with 18.3 percent.

So, the experience of the Black Death makes clear that pandemics can contribute to greater bargaining power for workers and perhaps even long run gains in human freedom that echo across the centuries. But will today’s Covid-19 pandemic lead to lasting social changes akin to those encountered in medieval Europe? While we are very skeptical that Covid will lead to changes that are as drastic or long lasting — as neither the destructive power of today’s pandemic nor the technological constraints on the economy are comparable — some of the dynamics of social change we are currently witnessing do resemble those observed in the wake of the Black Death.

Just like in medieval Europe, the current pandemic has been followed by a scarcity of available workers — a shortage that has, in many instances, given laborers the necessary leverage to leave their jobs, participate in strikes and otherwise negotiate for better working conditions. Whether this is just a short-lived uptick in workers’ bargaining power or the antecedent to something more permanent will depend on whether these recent gains become enshrined in institutions that permit workers to act collectively in defense of their rights. This could take the form of national legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would facilitate collective action across unions and enhance worker protections against retaliation for strikes. Or, it could be the result of reforms at the state-level, such as the extension of collective bargaining rights to all public employees in states that have a blanket prohibition or that limit that right to only certain classes of public employees. Alternatively, the state-level repeal of so-called right-to-work laws, which weaken bargaining leverage of unions, would also facilitate worker collective action. Initiatives like these might help American workers peaceably claw back their share of the productivity gains that have been overwhelmingly hoarded by owners, CEOs and upper-level management.

Still, the way in which Covid contributed to the current labor shortage is different from how the Black Death did so, which has implications for how long the effects of the pandemic will last. Unlike in medieval Europe, today’s labor shortage is caused by a combination of secondary pandemic effects — not the death of workers. Specifically, many laborers who would have worked a bit longer before retiring or who struggled to find jobs in the pre-Covid economy have dropped out of the active labor force. Additionally, many young parents are unable to find child care at affordable prices, which further amplifies the existing scarcity of labor. Individuals who belong to high-risk populations may be refraining from working right now due to fears of breakthrough infections or further variants of Covid emerging.

All of these changes are less permanent than demographic collapse, which was how the Black Death altered the labor supply. Some people who have dropped out of the active labor force might choose or be forced to reenter it. Similarly, once child care becomes more accessible, parents might return to work and increase the labor supply. Finally, with booster shots and increased vaccination rates, at-risk populations might be willing to return to work. If those dynamics unfold over the coming months, unless a substantially more deadly Covid variant emerges, the current level of labor power could potentially decline. Without the institutionalization of worker power through new laws or organizations (as occured in hard-hit areas after the Black Death pandemic), the return of the labor supply to its pre-Covid level could close the window of opportunity for workers to permanently gain a fairer share of the economic pie. Under such circumstances, the slow but steady erosion of labor bargaining power in the U.S. would not be reversed, but likely continue.

This contribution is based on the authors’ recent World Politics article, which can be accessed here.