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Positives Of The Black Plague: Labor Shortages Empowered The Working Class

Medieval History | April 13, 2020

The Great Plague actually created opportunities for Europe's poorest people. (northumberlandarchives.com)

The Black Death—the great waves of the bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the Middle Ages—killed more than one-third of the population, profoundly changing medieval society. While the catastrophic loss of life was devastating, it created opportunities that had significant effects on Europe and the rest of the world forever. The end of feudalism, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and the rise of the middle class all occurred in the wake of the Black Death

Peasants reaping the corn. After illuminations in the Luttrell Psalter- 14th century manuscript, c. 1340. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Pre-Plague Europe

Europe before the Great Plague was crowded, dirty, and unequal. A strict two-class system meant people in the lower class had almost no opportunities to move up. The royals, nobles, knights, and clergymen who comprised the upper, or ruling, class held all the power, wealth, and land, while the serfs and peasants of the lower class lived on the brink of starvation. In the medieval era's feudal system, serfdom was akin to slavery. These unfortunate souls not only worked lands owned by the wealthy elite, they paid for the privilege, and their rent and taxes often tallied up to nearly everything they harvested. Peasants were just a step above the serfs. Although many of them still worked the land for others, some were tradesman, like blacksmiths and builders. 

For the first time, slave-like serfs could earn a cash wage. (tes.com)

The Plague Changed The Division Of Labor

When the Black Death died down, it took a large percentage of the population with it. Since the conditions of poverty left the lower class uniquely vulnerable to the disease, the noblemen who owned large manors and estates found that there suddenly weren't enough serfs and peasants to do all the work that needed to be done. They needed labor fast, so they lured workers away from other areas with the promise of cash wages. In return, their employers had to offer even higher wages, along with better working conditions, housing, food, and more. The serfs suddenly found themselves with a tremendous level of negotiating power.

The plague led to end of the feudal system. (infograph.venngage.com)

The Plague Ended Feudalism

Prior to the Black Death, there was a drastic shortage of farmland in Europe. All the land that was suitable for raising livestock or farming had already been snatched up by the wealthy elite, but with a shortage of workers to farm and maintain the vast estates, many landowners were forced to sell off sections of their land. Since the lower class suddenly had access to unprecedented capital, they started buying these small plots of land for themselves. As landownership moved from the domain of the elite to that of all classes of people, the entire feudal system that had been in place in Europe for centuries collapsed.

The Peasant Revolt did not see immediate change, but it did have an impact. (historic-uk.com)

The Peasant Revolt

In the face of massive labor shortages and to stop wealthy landowners from competing with each other to lure the best workers with the promise of higher wages, the ruling class instituted the "Statute of Labourers" in 1351. This statute imposed a wage cap, effectively removing the bargaining chip the lower class had just been handed. They were furious, naturally, just not enough to do anything for 30 more years.

Finally, in 1381, they organized a protest, marching to London to present their demands to King Richard II, a young and impressionable monarch. When Richard met with the protesters, he promised them a number of concessions, including free trade, cheap land, and the end of serfdom. The mayor of London, however, cut down the head of the Peasant Revolt and led a movement to repress the protesters. When it was over, the promises that King Richard made were ignored, and the peasants were forced back to the farms. The Peasant Revolt was a failure, but it did prove to the working class that they had power in numbers.

With the end of the feudal system, there were more opportunities for people to start their own businesses. (en.wikipedia.org)

The Plague Created Entrepreneurial Opportunities

Now that peasants were earning more money, eating a healthier diet, and in charge of their own land, they had entrepreneurial opportunities that had never been available before. They could start all kinds of businesses, from weaving textiles to baking bread to making cheese to repairing shoes. Owning their own businesses helped them to increase their earnings, and in a relatively short time, many of these new business owners had grown quite wealthy.

Without the devastating aftermath of the Black Plague, there would have been no medieval middle class. (pinterest.com)

The Rise Of The Middle Class

Medieval Europe was so accustomed to the two-class system that the rise of the middle class took many of the elite by surprise. The ability to own land and earn a cash wage, coupled with more educational opportunities and the freedom to own their own businesses, gave the new middle class a degree of wealth, power, and privilege that the elite found threatening. They took a few measures to keep this new middle class from encroaching into the upper realms, but the times, they were a-changing. The middle class was here to stay. 

Tags: class | feudalism | medieval europe | middle class | plague

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.