Fletcher Armstrong is the south east director of the Center for Bioethical Reform.
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices … great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night … And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug … And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.
That’s a quote from the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura about the effects of the Black Death, which did a deadly circuit of Europe in the 1340s and 1350s, killing perhaps a third of the population or more. It returned at various intervals for centuries, causing more localized but sometimes just as deadly epidemics. But don’t let that get you too paranoid, this disease can be now easily cured with antibiotics, which weren’t available in the fourteenth century.
Nevertheless, the Black Death is something that still haunts the culture of Europe and beyond. The danse macabre, with its awkward dancing skeletons, is still a common image, as is that of the plague doctor, with the black gown and long beak-like plague mask.
The southern German village of Oberammergau still follows a vow that they would faithfully perform a Passion Play, reenacting biblical stories, every decade if they were spared the plague that was ravaging the area in the 1630s.
But even more influential, for an event that happened nearly 700 years ago, are the social and economic effects of the Black Death. The poor died more than the rich in the Black Death, there’s a surprise, they died more because they lived in much closer quarters, allowing much more contagion, and didn’t have the luxury of isolating themselves in castles or country houses.
But in the years after the plague subsided, the tables turned. Feudal Europe’s power structures were reversed when laborers realized that there was an abundance of farmland, all owned by the rich, and the food that it produced, but a shortage of workers. That shift of power dynamics in the market meant that peasants could negotiate a much better deal for themselves with the landholders they were previously tied to. This greatly destabilized feudalism, and can be seen as the starting point for many of the changes that came in Europe in the following centuries.
Some scholars have even attributed Italian Renaissance to the effects on society of the Black Death. That’s a bit above my pay grade, but it’s not unusual for economists to attribute big advances in society and the economy to apparently destructive upheavals.
The comparative success of the German economy, compared to Britain in the aftermath of World War II is seen as ironic, given that the British won the war and the Germans lost, but it’s not that surprising. The total destruction of Germany meant that old power structures were thrown out.
To a significant extent, people who got rich in that period in Germany started out with nothing, and got rich because of their talents and efforts. In Britain, whose class system was not disrupted by defeat, you got rich if your parents were rich. That meant that enterprise was rewarded in Germany, stagnation was rewarded in Britain. Not so surprising that Germany did better.
It looks like we’re going into another upheaval now, hopefully not nearly as dramatic. But even if the pandemic fades quickly, there are likely to be lasting effects. An obvious one is the demand for healthcare reform in the United States. The full effects of the virus are by no means clear in the US, or anywhere else for that matter, but the hugely inflated cost of healthcare, and its inaccessibility to millions of people is coming under pressure like never before.
In the UK, the outgoing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the virus response had proven that he had won the argument, in the election that he lost so spectacularly, he had won the argument for big government and big spending programs. That’s more than a little self-regarding, but has a point that government programs that so many conservative and centre-right European countries were very recently saying were completely impossible, they are doing them now. Requisitioning hospitals, housing people who were sleeping on the streets, giving significant cash handouts to people who have lost their jobs, banning evictions and rent increases.
I’m reading some dire predictions of the possible death toll in the United States. I’m hoping they aren’t true, but if those deaths are to be avoided, it will mean saving people’s lives with hugely expensive treatment to people who are un- or under-insured, and the only way to do that is with the federal government action. And once that’s done, it’s going to be difficult to argue that it’s impossible to do.