- The Black Death created a labor shortage in 14th-century Europe. Governments wanted to deny what was happening.
- The English king tried to make it mandatory for people to work without any increased pay for the value of their labor.
- Ultimately, the post-pandemic labor shortage permanently changed the structure of Europe’s economy.
A pandemic kills off a chunk of the population, especially the more vulnerable working class. The labor force depletes. The labor of the remaining people who are willing to work is suddenly worth higher wages. People in power pre-pandemic want to deny that labor is suddenly worth more than it was before.
It’s the story of the American labor market in 2021 — and the onset of the “Black Death,” or bubonic plague, in 14th-century Europe.
With over 38 million people leaving their jobs in 2021, the coronavirus pandemic has spawned what some are calling the Great Resignation. Research shows that people want to pursue more fulfilling careers, even without other jobs lined up. Workers seem tired of low-paying, dangerous professions, and want to avoid increased exposure to the pandemic.
And they definitely want more pay.
More bleakly, swaths of the workforce are simply also dying off: line cooks, warehouse employees, and agricultural workers were especially at high risk of death in 2020, according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco.
A new book by English historian Dan Jones makes clear that labor shortages have long followed pandemics, with social unrest not far behind. His “Powers and Thrones,” which looks at roughly 1,000 years of medieval history, includes a discussion of the Wat Tyler rebellion, which he argues was really the working class leveraging its power as a result of the labor shortage that followed the Black Death, or bubonic plague.
It wasn’t just an English phenomenon, either. Thousands of people died in the rebellions that took place throughout Europe during that age, but something else happened — the economy changed forever.
The government tried to prevent worker power — and bloodshed ensued
When Europe’s population peaked in the early 1300s, Jones writes, there was a healthy supply of workers, most of whom worked as serfs — unfree laborers under the control of landlords, whose lands they cultivated in return for the lord’s protection.
When a pandemic arrived on this scene, the continent eventually lost roughly one in every two people. This was a human tragedy, but it also put labor at a premium. Wages soared as landowners struggled to make sure their crops didn’t die from a lack of harvesters. The sudden decline in the population also meant a decline in land rental prices. Land became dirt cheap, and landlords were desperate for tenants.
“Even where willing workers could be found, the cost to landowners of bringing in their crops rocketed,” Jones writes. “The sudden population decline also caused a collapse in the price of land rents.”
More than 800,000 people have died from COVID in the US over 2020 and 2021, and a similar thing is happening on a much smaller scale. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 3 million people are currently missing from the American workforce, while wages have increased significantly for the first time in decades, and set to go even higher in 2022.
According to Jones, the same kind of shift in worker power 600 years ago caused wealthy landowners to panic. They petitioned their rulers to help save them from financial ruin.
In England, King Edward III enacted legislation that made it illegal for workers to claim wages above pre-pandemic rates: the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. Workers were prescribed wage ceilings depending on their industry, such as masonry or mowing. The ordinance also made it a legal requirement for every able-bodied person under 60 years old to work.
Under the next king, Richard II, these ordinances, along with a slew of new, higher taxes finally triggered what is known as the Peasants’ Revolt, the first great popular rebellion in English history.
A group of rebels led by Wat Tyler stormed London, joined by local townfolk. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they opened jails and put buildings to the torch while marching to the capital, where in an audience with the king they demanded an end to serfdom and new labor laws. It was a contract negotiation between the monarch and a common man that history still doesn’t know much about.
The king agreed to their demands, but he demanded that traitors be turned in. That is where things went wrong.
The protests started up again and turned deadly, as Tyler’s mob ransacked the city and murdered multiple members of the royal council.
The next time he had an audience with the king, Tyler demanded “an absolute end to all lordship except the king’s and the complete confiscation and redistribution of church lands,” Jones writes. The revolt finally ended when the rebels were crushed by the militant bishop of Norwich, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.
In a previous book, 2010’s “Summer of Blood,” Jones estimated the number of dead among the rebels alone was roughly 1,500.
King Richard then reneged on many of his promises, although the poll tax was dropped, labour ceilings were only loosely enforced, and serfs increasingly bought their freedom, becoming independent farmers. Even if the effect wasn’t immediate, it was the beginning of the end for serfdom.
A half-millennium later, another pandemic has shaken up the labor market and potentially the social contract. What will it spell the end of?