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How plagues change the world

Could the coronavirus pandemic have an effect as lasting and profound as the Black Death?

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The global crisis unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic is starting to look like a historic inflection point. While we do not know how long the outbreak will last and how severe its fallout will be, it is difficult to shake the feeling that we are now at a threshold between two eras.

If anything, the inherent uncertainty of this moment recalls the original meaning of the ancient Greek word “crisis”. A key term in Hippocratic medicine, krisis referred to the turning point in a disease, indicating either the beginning of recovery or the onset of death. A true crisis, then, is by definition a vitally important moment at which change has to come – for better or for worse.

The current crisis is not entirely without precedent. Throughout the ages, infectious diseases have left an indelible mark on the future course of world history: from the Justinian Plague that ravaged the Byzantine and Sassanid empires in the sixth century, to the horrific epidemics that destroyed the indigenous civilisations of the Americas after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century. But if we had to single out one epoch-making pandemic, it would be the Black Death of the mid-14th century – a transformative event that heralded the “waning of the Middle Ages” and that would reshape the emerging modern world order in profound ways.

While Covid-19 is a different kind of disease, with a much lower mortality rate, the dramatic socio-economic ramifications of the pandemic raise an important question: could the crisis end up playing a similar role for the late-modern world as the Black Death did for the late-medieval one?

Will this pandemic, too, remake the world as we know it?

In the autumn of 1347, 12 Genoese galleys put into the Sicilian harbour of Messina. Upon approaching the ships for regular customs checks, local port authorities soon made a ghastly discovery: most of the men on board were either dead or dying. As the Franciscan friar Michele   di Piazze wrote in a letter at the time: “The sailors brought in their bones a disease so violent that whoever spoke a word   to them was infected and could in no way save himself from death.” The victims “were stricken with pains all over the body and felt a terrible lassitude. There then appeared, on a thigh or an arm, a pustule like a lentil. From this the infection penetrated the body and violent bloody vomiting began. It lasted for a period of three days and there was no way of preventing its ending in death.”

The terrifying ailment of which di Piazze spoke was bubonic plague. Caused by an   infection of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the disease has long been endemic among the rodent populations of certain natural environments. Spread by the fleas feeding on the blood of infected animals, such as marmots, gerbils and black rats, the infection occasionally jumps over to humans. While the geographical origins of the   14th-century pandemic are hotly debated, the latest genetic evidence seems to point towards a sudden outbreak of plague – possibly induced by climate change – somewhere in the inner Asian highlands. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Monica Green, a leading historian of the Black Death, researchers’ attention has recently shifted from the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, primarily located in western China, to the Tien Shan mountain range at the Chinese- Kyrgyz border.

The subsequent spread of the disease was more than just an ecological phenomenon. Not unlike the process that spread Covid-19 around the globe, the Black Death was the result of a complex interaction between a pathogen naturally occurring in animal populations and a social organisation among human communities that proved highly conducive to its spread. The growing interaction between East and West played a particularly important role. While the late-medieval world was by no means as globalised as our own, it was still much more connected than we often assume.

Crucially, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century had briefly brought around two-thirds of the Eurasian landmass under the unified control of the largest contiguous empire in history. Although the vast realm of Genghis Khan’s descendants ultimately fell apart into four competing principalities (khanates), commercial relations along the Mongol-protected Silk Roads continued to thrive well into the first half of the 14th century. It was the sudden increase in human mobility – in the form of Mongol armies and merchant camel caravans – that inadvertently enabled the carriers of the plague to escape their natural environment. Empire and trade conspired to produce what the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy   Ladurie called in 1973 “the microbial unification of the world”.

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In 1338, a powerful pestilence swept through the area bordering Lake   Issyk-Kul, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, among the Tien Shan mountains. This particular outbreak provided archaeologists with what has long been considered the earliest evidence of the Black Death, recorded on the grave-stone inscriptions of a Nestorian burial ground. By the early 1340s, the plague had reached the Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde and was raging through the southern Russian steppes. The commonly accepted theory is that the Golden Horde ruler, Khan Jani Beg, then brought it to the Black Sea when in 1346 his armies besieged the Genoese merchant stronghold of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula. In his vivid account of the Black Death, the Italian chronicler Gabriel de Mussis wrote that the Mongol forces, soon ravaged by the outbreak, responded by hurling infected corpses over the city walls. The terrified Genoese fled by boat to Constantinople, whence they – and other Italian merchants – fatefully spread the disease throughout the Mediterranean world.

The Black Death reached the great commercial ports of Italy and Egypt in late 1347. From there, it raged like a wildfire across   Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Four years and several recurring waves of infection later, at least one in three people in these regions were dead. “In what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole Earth?” lamented the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch. The mortality was so great that he feared future generations would doubt the veracity of his account: “Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables.”

Wherever it went, the Black Death left devastation in its wake. In Cairo, one of the Old World’s largest and wealthiest cities, estimates are that as many as half of the population died in the space of several weeks – with an astounding 13,800 fatalities reported on the worst two days alone. Mass graves appeared throughout Europe at this time, as survivors hurriedly dis-posed of the accumulated corpses, often without administering last rites. In the introduction to his Decameron (1353), the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio noted that social bonds broke down as “this scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers”.


World conqueror: Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, the founder of an empire whose armies later may have spread the Black Death. Credit: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

In the short term, the pandemic caused widespread economic disruption and social distress. Confronted with the spectre of imminent death, many people stopped showing up at work. “Just like the townspeople,” Boccaccio wrote, peasants “became lax in their ways and neglected their chores as if they expected death that very day.” The French poet Guillaume de Machaut also wrote: “No one ploughed the fields/ Bound the cereals and took in the grapes…/ Since so many were dead.” Some took to drinking, gambling or various other forms of licentious behaviour. There was a marked rise in xenophobic violence, as survivors in various parts of Europe turned on outsiders – especially Jews, whom they preposterously accused of having poisoned the wells.

The Black Death visited an unparalleled demographic disaster upon large parts of the Old World. The historian Bruce Campbell estimates that, in England alone, which had a pre-plague population of approximately 4.8 million, some 2 million people died as a result of the pandemic in less than two years. Around half the fatalities fell within the extremely deadly summer months of 1349. The socio-economic and political ramifications of this were profound. In his classic introduction to world history, the Muqaddimah (1377), the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun recorded that the plague, which had taken the lives of both his parents, “devastated nations and caused populations to vanish… Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.”

Apart from the astonishing mortality rate of the disease, what lent the Black Death its great transformative power was that it struck regions where the established order was already in an advanced state of decay. This was especially true of Europe, where feudal societies had been grappling with a series of severe crises for at least half a century, leaving the continent ill-equipped to respond to the outbreak. It was the combination of climate change, declining agricultural yields, recurring famines, rising debts, financial crises, rising social tensions, intensified political instability and the eventual disintegration of the Pax Mongolica – which cut off the lucrative long-distance trade between East and   West – that left Europe in its weakened state. Adding a fulminating pandemic into this volatile mix created a perfect storm from which the feudal order would never fully recover.

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As the initial shockwaves rippled throughout the continent, the plague almost instantly reordered long-standing social relations between rich and poor, lord and serf, turning the tables on Europe’s ruling elite in previously unimaginable ways. As the historian James Belich points out, “the Black Death not only halved populations, but also doubled the average per capita endowment of everything – bullion, goods, buildings, animals, land and so on… If the halving of people and the doubling of everything else does not have a potentially revolutionary effect, what does?”

One immediate effect of this sudden demographic jolt was an acute labour shortage: there were simply not enough peasants to till the fields, not enough sailors to man the ships, not enough spinners to keep the textile looms going, not enough builders to construct new homes or artisans to produce the desired household items. This labour shortage in turn strengthened the bargaining power of urban and rural workers. Day wages increased, sometimes doubling or even tripling. In 1363, the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani lamented that “serving girls and… stable boys want at least 12 florins per year, and the most arrogant among them 18 or 24 florins per year, and so also nurses and minor artisans working with their hands want three times or nearly the usual pay”.

But higher wages did not necessarily translate into higher living standards. Wage labourers made up only a minority of the working population in the 14th century, and employers often responded to the rising cost of labour by simply hiring less of it. The fall in the amount of days worked contributed to the dramatic contraction of total economic output, causing commodity prices to rise and feeding into rampant inflation.

Members of the upper classes were keen to blame the spendthrift ways of the  popolo minuto, the “little people.” Villani claimed that, “The common people, by reason of the abundance and superfluity that they found would no longer work at their accustomed trades; they wanted the dearest and most delicate foods… while children and common women clad themselves in all the fair and costly garments of the illustrious who had died.” Urban elites sought to reinforce their social status by imposing limits on wage demands and strict rules on the dress code for lower-ranking social classes, forbidding the poor from engaging in luxury consumption and dressing like the rich.


At attention: staff prepare to disinfect Wuhan Railway Station in Hubei province, China on 24 March. Credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images 

Such repression served further to erode popular respect for political authority. Desperate to maintain its privileged position, the nobility sought to secure its income through the spoils of war. While the Hundred Years’ War between England and France had already begun in 1337, the conflict probably only lasted as long as it did because it proved to be a particularly lucrative exercise for fiscally squeezed noblemen. As the leading Norwegian historian of the Black Death, Ole Benedictow, notes, “the social elites, the political classes, so to speak, had a strong interest in keeping the war going” in the wake of the pandemic.

But the intensification of feudal belligerence came at a high cost. To compensate aristocratic warriors for their military services, kings were forced sharply to increase the tax burden on the peasantry. Soon, a wave of popular revolts rolled over the continent: from the French Jacquerie of 1358 and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to the Florentine wool carders’   revolt of 1378 to the rebellion of the Catalan remences in the next century. Many of these episodes revealed a strikingly modern attachment to egalitarian principles. In   his Florentine Histories (1532), Niccolò Machiavelli cited a Florentine textile worker   as saying: “You will see that we are alike; dress us in their clothes and them in ours, and without a doubt we shall appear noble and they ignoble, for only poverty and riches make us unequal.”

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The most remarkable thing about the emerging post-plague landscape was the diversity of political outcomes across Europe. Faced with a common shock, different countries responded in radically different ways. In England, the popular struggles after the Black Death led to a new form of agrarian capitalism. In France and Spain, the aristocracy entered into an alliance with the monarchy, leading to a centralisation of political authority in the absolutist state. In Italy, power remained decentralised within city-states, allowing merchant oligarchies to entrench their particular form of commercial capitalism.

In the Near East, the outcomes were different still. The powerful military landlords of Mamluk Egypt pressed down so hard on the peasantry that local communities were forced continuously to till the fields and abandon their maintenance work on the Nile irrigation system, causing its canals to become chocked with silt and leading to long-term agricultural decline.

The Byzantine empire similarly went into its death throes following the plague, opening up a power vacuum for the Ottomans to fill, finally leading to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The rise of the Ottoman empire dashed European efforts to re-establish direct trade relations with the Far East. The Genoese, having lost their stronghold on the Black Sea, turned west in the hope of finding new commercial opportunities in the Atlantic.

Genoese merchants soon established a firm presence along the West African coast, and eventually became heavily involved in the Portuguese sugar plantations on Madeira and the Azores. The Portuguese and Genoese turned to the forced labour of captives purchased from African emperors and warlords for the manpower to grow this labour-intensive crop – giving rise to the Atlantic slave trade. Portugal’s early colonial adventures soon triggered a competitive struggle with neighbouring Spain, culminating in the rival voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Aiming to circumvent the Muslim monopoly over the Far East trade routes, the Genoese explorer eventually stumbled upon the Americas, while his Portuguese counterpart circumnavigated Africa to find a direct route to India. A new era in world history had begun.

The Black Death, which had acted as a powerful catalyst in this complex chain of events, was truly an epoch-making event. The world eventually recovered from the late-medieval crisis it spawned, but if there is one lesson we can draw from this historical experience, it is that the social, economic and political consequences of a major pandemic can linger well beyond the immediate impact. This pandemic, too, will pass – but the after-effects may remain with us for a long time to come. Although coronavirus itself will not create a new world, the way in which social movements, political actors and international powers choose to respond to it certainly will. 

Jerome Roos teaches political economy at  the London School of Economics, and is currently writing a history of global crises for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 15 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion