This Ain't The First Time A Global Epidemic Led To Workers Demanding Higher Wages
On June 11, 1352, a series of trials were held against laborers from Wiltshire, England who had violated a 1349 ordinance that decreed that all laborers must accept the wages they had received in 1346. This is a rare specific date when we can look at the economic impact of the Black Death and how the workers who survived sought to take advantage to improve their financial standing.
The impact of the bubonic plague upon Europe was truly amazing. Somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died in Eurasia, mostly in Europe between 1347 and 1351, killing between 30 and 60 percent of Europe's population. World population actually plunged by about 25 percent and did not return to the pre-plague levels until the mid-16th century. In areas such as southern France, southern Spain, and Italy, historians estimate that up to 80 percent of the population died. About 40 percent of Egypt's population died. It was 50 percent in Paris and 60 percent in Hamburg and London. And of course, waves of plague, not quite as deadly as the initial round but still devastating, rolled through Europe every few years into the 17th century. Half of Naples died in a 1656 outbreak, as an example.
The impacts of the Black Death upon society were far-reaching. In short, it destabilized everything. The authority of priests declined and fundamentalist religious movements sprung up that began challenging the church generally and began laying the way for the Reformation. Anti-Semitic attacks rose. The impact on family structure can hardly be overstated in areas where a large majority of people died. The Plague not only decimated workers, but for those who survived, it gave them more power due to the labor shortage. The farm economy at the backbone of medieval Europe was effectively destroyed. This caused a great deal of consternation to landlords, nobles, and the crown. Writings appeared that nostalgically longed for the days when peasants knew their place and demanded nothing, a very different world than after 1348. One lord in Norfolk, England lost sixty percent of his workers as peasants demanded better conditions and sometimes left the land entirely. Moreover, dead peasants paid no rent and did not labor. Inflation rose as the survivors each had more gold and silver for themselves as a portion of the economy–after all, the coins didn't die of plague. Slowly, landlords moved away from labor-intensive grain production and more toward livestock, which required fewer workers.
In England, the state responded by attempting to freeze labor in place, though it was largely fighting a losing battle. The 1349 law referenced above ordered servants and hired laborers to accept the same wages they had received in 1346. It also required craftsmen and tradesmen to charge the same prices they had in the same year. Evidently, this law was not closely followed, for in 1351, the Statue of Laborers was created that created the ability to prosecute workers for violating the law. And there were a lot of violations. In 1352, 642 people were prosecuted in Wiltshire alone. The documents survive and we have quite a bit of information. A man named John Laurok left the service of a man in Oxfordshire. He was fined six pence. Quite a few people were paid in grain at rates significantly higher than 1346, sometimes receiving twice as much. Richard the Cobbler of Clack Mount charged more for his shoes. When the bailiff went to arrest him, he fled, so when he finally was arrested, he faced a contempt of court charge in addition to violating the economic laws. He plead guilty and was fined two marks (twenty-six shillings and eight pence).
Many women were also charged. Brewing was a largely female job at this time and 24 percent of the cases were brewers or tapsters, also a female position. Four women–Edith Paiers, Alice Dounames, Edith Lange, and Isbael Purs–were all fined six pence each for receiving an extra six pence for reaping corn into sheaves. What is also notable is that this was a law–not surprisingly–that punished workers but not the people paying them. Only one person in Wiltshire was charged with offering higher wages to induce a worker to violate the law.
Some workers were acquitted. William le Coupere of Elcombe accepted offers of extra money from several men, violating the law. But the jury acquitted him, even though the official record notes that he lied under oath about it.
In other parts of Europe, the ability to keep labor in place was better organized. Catalonia for instance had already placed new restrictions on peasants and used violence and harsh financial penalties to allow them no new rights or mobility during the plague. But more nations struggled with the newfound labor demands. France for instance had enacted a similar law in 1349 but had to revise it in 1351 to permit a wage increase of 1/3 because it was just not a workable law due to peasants just ignoring it because they could.
The other thing notable about all of this is that nearly everything has a labor history. Work is a central part of our lives. It might not be as important as breathing and eating since those are biological functions, but it is a central organizing principle of nearly every society that has ever existed on this planet. That work can take place in a variety of forms, but work is as important to our society as marriage or education or ceremonies around death.
Why It Matters:
This story is…surprisingly relevant today! Our own pandemic, while nowhere near as devastating as the Black Death, has also given low-wage workers more labor power than they have had in a long time. Workers by the millions are rethinking whether they want to go back to low-wage crap jobs where they are treated like dirt. Uber and Lyft are having trouble finding drivers. Grocery delivery services struggle to find shoppers. Fast food restaurants are short-staffed. There's a good reason—those jobs suck. The pandemic relief packages gave workers some choices in their lives and some time to rethink their position in the economy. They are seeking better work now. We see Republicans and employers freaking out about this. States such as Florida and Texas are cutting off enhanced unemployment benefits early to force laborers back into bad jobs. Employers are complaining that workers aren't being good "team members," as if that was ever anything than just doing whatever the boss wants with a cheery smile and broken soul. Restaurant owners are whining about—GASP!—having to train workers on the job instead of relying on their preexisting skills.
As it turns out, global disease epidemics are a moment that sometimes give workers extra power over their lives, so long as they survive. Most did in 2020-21. Most did not in 1348-52. But those that do survive enter into a transformed labor market. The extent to which they can make those changes permanent, at least in the present, depends on how our politics seek to empower or discipline those workers. We should fight for the former.
I borrowed from John Aberth, ed., The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents, for the writing of this post. It includes the material from England. I highly recommend this reader for teaching relevant topics. I use it in my Global Environmental History course. This is also a useful site with lots of detailed information about the economic impact of the plague. I borrowed a little bit of detail from here, but there's much more for you to find.
Editorial Note: This was supposed to go up yesterday, but someone (Rebecca) forgot! Our apologies!
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