Historically, pandemics have been devastating. As we experience several waves of the current pandemic, more and more literature on the history of pandemics is emerging to help us reflect on how economies, social structure, labour market as well as institutions and human thinking have been influenced by pandemics. Historical literature on pandemics is as important to understand societal development, as wars and revolutions. Black Death was one such pandemic that not only took countless lives, more than any other single known event, but also possibly catalysed European renaissance, and culminated in fundamentally changing European socio-political and economic structure in a big way.
The 2nd Bubonic plague was a multi century pandemic (14th-18th century) that by some estimates killed 100-150 million people (approx. 30-35% of the global population) within the first 50 years of its reign (Huremović, 2019). Black death was the first wave of 2nd Bubonic plague and mainly affected Europe from 1347 to 1353 (Snowden, 2019). As a result, around 50 million people died in Europe which was more than 50% of its population (Benedictow, 2005).
Black Death started in China in 1334 and the China’s Silk Route trade played a crucial role in its spread. The pandemic spread along the burgeoning trade routes in Central Asia and reached Europe via Sicilian ports on merchant ships in the late 1340s (Howard, 2020).
Europe & Renaissance
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 500 AD, Europe went through the “dark ages” (500 – 800 AD), a time of chaos and poverty. Although revival started during the 9th and 10th century, Crusades and other wars among European nation states continued (The Middle Ages, n.d.). It would still take Europeans until 1648 to negotiate the historic Westphalia Treaty that would bring relative peace and stability for Europe which would in turn enable growth in trade and socio-economic development.
However the centuries prior to the ‘peace at Westphalia’ were very crucial in shaping Europe. As renaissance took hold of Europe during the 14th and 15th century, questions of citizenship, state and rights arose. Although England had adopted constitutional checks on the Monarch as early as 13th century through the ‘Magna Carta’, it was the spread of ideas caused by renaissance that led to a pan-European understanding of Rule of Law and questioning of the authority of church. This is the context in which thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau posited their ‘social contract theories’ in the 16th century, which was to define the fundamentals of the relationship between state and citizens for Europe, and in many ways, for the rest of the world, for years to come.
But for renaissance to take place, Europe had to first go through the most fatal pandemic in human history, Black Death.
Black Death & Renaissance
At the time Black Death arrived in 1347, Europe was under a lengthy period of social and economic hardship (Snowden, 2019). The high mortality rate caused by Black Death resulted in a drastic decline in urban and rural labor force. Wages rose due to the shortage of labor, and the survivors of the pandemic generally had a higher standard of living. This led to the destruction of feudalism in Europe, as serfs could increasingly purchase their freedom. This increased social mobility leading to the emergence of a new middle class which patronized art, academia, and reason.
As priests and parish-workers started dying, due to their excessive involvement with the sick, the church had to employ relatively less qualified men as substitutes. The power of the church gradually receded, corruption increased, leading to demand and orientation for greater secularization of the society. Old dogmatized values were questioned.
This change manifested in the numerous political revolts of the time. The demise of the traditional elite and the rise of the new elite led to questioning the authority of the king, placing merit over birth, leading to the rise of individualism (Daily History, n.d.).
The effects of Black Death on the Renaissance were most pronounced in Italy, which was the epicenter of the European Renaissance. Though devastating, the lives of Europeans subsequently drastically improved.
Although proportionally not comparable to Black Death, Covid-19 has disrupted global supply chains and disrupted the labour market in significant ways. There is new evidence emerging about a Coronavirus pandemic that swept East Asia 2000 years ago, which was devastating enough to leave an evolutionary impact (TOI, 2021). It opens up possibilities of Covid-19 snowballing into a pandemic of bigger proportions either now or in later waves.
This can lead to the collapse of the labour market, dilution of class consciousness and social restructuring, which may lead to the much-needed renaissance in countries like India which has had isolated renaissance movements in the past but has failed to capitalise the same in its modern times. The unrest and revolts in Cuba, South Africa, Haiti, and Tunisia etc. can be seen as part of a larger social restructuring happening around the world, in some cases caused and in other’s accelerated by the pandemic. Lessons from Black Death tell us the possible scope of Covid-19 devastation. However, it equally highlights the prospect of post pandemic major social restructuring and meaningful structural corrections towards better social equity.
This article was written by Sonal Kuruvilla under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow. Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.