How the Black Plague Boosted the Working Class

By Sophia Maddox | May 24, 2024

Just To Be Clear - The Black Plague Wasn't Great

The Black Plague, often remembered for its devastating toll on Europe, also sparked profound social and economic changes. Amid the chaos and loss, a significant shift occurred that empowered the working class like never before. With a drastic reduction in the population, labor shortages swept across the continent, forcing landowners and employers to compete for the remaining workers. This newfound leverage allowed laborers to demand better wages, improved working conditions, and greater rights. In an unexpected twist, the tragedy of the Black Plague paved the way for a more equitable society, highlighting the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Dive into this transformative period and discover how a dark chapter in history led to the rise of worker empowerment and lasting social change.

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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

Pre-Plague Europe

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

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.