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

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.

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