After The Plague : Planet Money The Black Death was one of the worst catastrophes to ever hit humanity. But it also helped upend feudal hierarchies, redistribute wealth, and make daily life better for a lot of medieval Europeans.

After The Plague

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We're going to start today's show on a bustling fall day in Sicily in a port town called Messina. The year is 1347, and ships are coming into the harbor from all around the Mediterranean. They're loaded up with spices and silk from Asia. Some are filled with grain.


And in addition to the spices and the silk and the grain, these ships are also carrying a very different kind of cargo, a kind of stowaway.

FRANK SNOWDEN: That would be the rat, and in particular, the black rat, or Rattus rattus, as it is called scientifically. And it's actually rather cute.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Frank Snowden is a medical historian at Yale. And Frank says that on that cute little Rattus rattus is another stowaway.

SNOWDEN: Which is the flea.

ROMER: And inside the gut of this little flea is a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that is in the process of unleashing a global catastrophe.

SNOWDEN: Yersinia pestis is really one of the most awful bacteria that you can imagine ever having to face.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Awful because Yersinia pestis is what causes the bubonic plague. And it starts right there, inside the gut of the flea, where it immediately reproduces like crazy.

SNOWDEN: And it does so in such profusion that it clogs the digestive system of the poor flea, and the flea begins to die of starvation. And so it becomes more and more compelled to bite.

ROMER: Bite the rats, who then get their rat version of this awful disease. Some of the rats managed to jump ship in Messina, share their fleas with the local Sicilian rats and bring the plague to Europe.

SNOWDEN: And so one of the signs of bubonic plague is a great die-off of rats.

ROMER: So if I were walking down the street of an Italian city during the plague, I might just see piles of dead rats in the street?

SNOWDEN: Yes, you would see rats staggering about the streets.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And then, finally, the fleas and the bacteria inside the fleas find their way to humans. As soon as you're bitten, the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, finds the nearest lymph node in your body. That's the neck, armpits or groin. It makes copy after copy of itself. Your lymph node fills with pus and expands into this giant ball, sometimes as big as an orange. That's the titular bubo that gives the bubonic plague its name.

SNOWDEN: The buboes were so painful that people actually committed suicide to escape the pain.

ROMER: The bubonic plague usually kills in a matter of days, and it spreads really quickly. This version of the plague gets so bad that it comes to be known as the Black Death.

SNOWDEN: It's like a wildfire that finds timber. People start dying en masse, so you have this collapse of law and order in the city, a collapse of the economy of the city. You have this terrible spectacle of bodies everywhere. And what do you do with them? And so you begin to get plague pits where the bodies are thrown. And it feels to people that the world is coming to an end, perhaps.

ROMER: And how many people would've died in a city?

SNOWDEN: Now, the plague would besiege, let's say, Messina for weeks and weeks. And by the time the flames die away to embers, perhaps half the population of the city would've perished.

ROMER: Half of the city died.

SNOWDEN: Yes. In fact, half the population of Europe as a whole died during the Black Death.


ROMER: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Keith Romer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. The Black Death was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. It destroyed lives and families and left behind a wasteland.

ROMER: But there's this other side of the Black Death that we don't usually talk about, a sort of silver lining. As the world was being destroyed, it was also being remade. From the ashes of the Black Death rose an entirely new world.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today on the show, that silver lining - how the Black Death, the pandemic of all pandemics, shook up feudal hierarchies, improved the lives of medieval Europeans and completely transformed the economy.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Pretty much as soon as the rats jump ship in Sicily, things start taking a turn for the worse in Europe. It's only a matter of weeks before the Black Death starts to fan out from Messina because it doesn't die with the people it kills. Here's Frank Snowden again.

SNOWDEN: As they die, their body cools, and the fleas become desperate to leap to the next warm body. And so fleas, if they're able to do that, they pass on the plague to the next person, the next warm body.

ROMER: The fleas and the plague then go everywhere those people go.

SNOWDEN: And it travels by cart, by boat. Within a matter of weeks, it passes onto the mainland up the Italian peninsula and then into France, to the British Isles, to northern Europe. And so every place is scourged by this disease.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But, of course, nobody has any idea that this is happening because of some bacteria had nested in a flea living on a rat. It's the 1340s. There are all sorts of wild theories, like maybe it's some sort of noxious swampy gas emanating from the Earth.

ROMER: Medical advisers to the French royal court propose, maybe it's astrological. Maybe Jupiter and Saturn are lined up wrong.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Some people start trying to keep the disease at bay by sniffing vinegar or smoking tobacco. If you do come down with the plague, of course, you can always bleed yourself or, if you can afford it, make a plague smoothie - throw in some stag's horn or the skin of a viper.

ROMER: Or maybe it's just your classic Old Testament purge.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Some people get really into whipping themselves to try to get right with God.

ROMER: But nothing worked. The plague kept spreading, so people just hunkered down and tried to survive.

SNOWDEN: People are terrified to associate with one another, to come close to one another. It seems as though the whole world is being destroyed.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bodies are piling up in the streets. You can't walk anywhere in the city without smelling death in the air.

SNOWDEN: There was a great demand for gravediggers. You know, bring out your dead. There were real people who went from house to house, picked up the bodies and took them away and buried them. And they often were heavily drinking because they were terrified.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And everywhere the plague arrives, it's followed by this kind of breakdown in the social fabric.

SNOWDEN: It unleashes theft and violence as people are looking for scapegoats. There are also people looking to loot people who've fallen ill and their property is - seems to be available. So it's a terrible portrait of what can happen to a society.

ROMER: One popular conspiracy theory at the time held that the Jews of Europe were to blame for the Black Death, that they were poisoning city wells across the continent, which set off one of the largest waves of anti-Semitic violence in Europe until the 1930s. In the city of Strasbourg on Valentine's Day of 1349, for example...

SNOWDEN: There was a Jewish population of about 2,000 people. And the Jews were rounded up and offered a choice either to convert to Christianity or to be put to death on the spot. About a thousand opted to be baptized. The other thousand were taken to the Jewish cemetery and burned alive there.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Life during the plague was a nightmare. And, as you can imagine, that nightmare also extended to the economy.

ANNE MCCANTS: All kinds of economic activity just literally comes to a standstill.

ROMER: That's Anne McCants, a historian from MIT. She says a lot of rich people fled the cities to hide out in their country estates, and the poor who were left behind just tried to get by any way they could. Across the board, people basically stopped working.

MCCANTS: And we have chronicles - right? - that tell us, you know, that the grain just rotted in the field and animals died by the roadside.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Anne says that first wave of the plague did finally fizzle out around 1352. And that's really where the silver lining part of our story starts, the story about how the worst thing that ever happened to humanity, this catastrophe that left behind a world where half the population is suddenly gone and society's broken down in all these ways - how that catastrophe actually turned out to make life way better for a lot of people.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's coming up after the break.

Anne McCants says the economic transformation that came about after the Black Death was only possible because of the very specific way the pandemic attacked the European economy.

MCCANTS: The plague destroys human capital. That is to say it destroys human beings. But it does not destroy physical capital. You know, good farmland - the crop may rot in the field for one or two years, but if the land was fertile before, it's going to be fertile again.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So if you're a big landowner, the good news is you still have a bunch of land that can make you a bunch of money. The bad news - half your serfs are dead. There's no one to till the soil.

ROMER: All the tools in the shoemaker's shop - those are still there. But if all the shoemakers were wiped out by the plague, how are shoes supposed to get made?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: From a strictly economic perspective, there is suddenly a huge shortage of labor. And that means the workers who are left have more power now.

GUIDO ALFANI: And this allows workers to negotiate effectively for higher wages.

ROMER: That's Guido Alfani, an economic historian at the University of Bocconi in Milan.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Guido says that in Florence between 1350 and the early 1400s, wages doubled. And you see versions of the same thing all over Europe.

ROMER: It wasn't just wages, either. Workers were able to demand better working conditions, too. Guido says you can actually see this in some of the employment contracts in Tuscany from the years right after the Black Death.

ALFANI: People who were employed to work the land required to be given oxen as part of the contract. And oxen are very costly, so there's this kind of a shift from an economy in which you basically use human labor to a shift in which you use animal workforce. And this allows for a much more productive way of farming.

ROMER: So in Italy, workers were sort of saying, like, I'm only going to work here if you give me an ox to work the field. Otherwise...

ALFANI: Yes, exactly. Because they had the knife in their hand, and they used that power.

ROMER: They had the knife in the hand in the sense that they had all the negotiating power?

ALFANI: Exactly.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The people on the other side of that negotiation, the nobles and big landowners, they were not all that happy about this new state of affairs. Like, a peasant is trying to tell me how much I'm going to pay him? There's almost immediate pushback.

ROMER: In England, to take just one example, they pass a law called the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349, still in the middle of the plague.

MCCANTS: This is a law that actually punishes both the laborer themself for taking too high of a wage - or, you know, in the language of the day, demanding too high a wage - and the landowner, let's say, or employer who overpays.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Anne McCants says instead of a minimum wage law, medieval England had a maximum wage law. Their wages were capped.

ROMER: Parliament also passes a law forbidding the free movement of workers around the country in order to stop people from shopping for higher wages in, say, the neighboring shire.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But for the most part, the English government just isn't able to enforce these laws.

MCCANTS: It's really clearly a failure.

ROMER: The workers were just too powerful.

MCCANTS: And, you know, sort of one of the nicknames for this period is the golden age of labor.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's hard to overstate what a big deal this was, and it didn't just stop at higher wages. There were these new forms of social mobility. Like, up until this moment, jobs were passed down from generation to generation within particular families. Whether that was a good job or a bad job, the job you had was almost certainly going to be the same job your father had and his father had, as far back as anyone could remember.

ROMER: A lot of the good jobs - shoemaker, wheelwright...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Weaver, tanner...

ROMER: ...Fletcher, scrivener...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...Ferrier, salter...

ROMER: ...Chandler...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...Girdler...

ROMER: The point is...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...Cordwainer.

ROMER: The point is these jobs were controlled by guilds. If you weren't in the guild, you weren't allowed to do them. But suddenly, half of the guild members were dead. So the folks who ran the guilds had to start thinking about letting in some new members, people whose families had never been shoemakers before.

ALFANI: You have the necessity of allowing new families to enter the system because you can't rely on always the same group anymore because they can't provide the necessary number of workers anymore.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Don't want to harvest barley anymore? Become a loriner. Make some stirrups and harnesses. Or you could become a poulter. That's a poultry salesman.

ALFANI: So for a moment, it's possible to move up. It's possible to change things.

ROMER: And to start accumulating wealth, which in medieval Europe means essentially one thing.

ALFANI: In this society, the largest part of wealth is basically real estate. It's basically land.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the wake of the Black Death, some of the largest estates are broken apart when their owners die, and the land gets split evenly among multiple descendants. Many of those plots are then put up for sale.

ALFANI: For a period, you have kind of a buyer's market. And you have people who had little or no property who manage to acquire property. They maybe buy a field, or even simply a vegetable garden, an orchard, or they buy a small house.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Guido says you can actually see all these changes when you look at the economic data that exists from the 1300s.

ALFANI: And this also reflects in a sharp decline in economic inequality of both income and wealth.

ROMER: He says these low rates of income and wealth inequality lasted for about a century before they started going right back up again.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So there's like a little island of lower inequality for a hundred or so years.

ALFANI: Absolutely, absolutely. And it is quite exceptional because after that, the only other island would be that associated with the world wars.

ROMER: It was one of only three times that the rate of inequality has dropped in the past 700 years. And you could see that change in people's everyday lives and the stuff they owned. It actually shows up in archaeology.

MCCANTS: The scholars who work in this area talk about the mix between pasture and arable cultivation based on, you know, what has been left in the pollen record.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Anne McCants says you drill into an old glacier, count how much wheat pollen there is and how much grass pollen, and compare that to the part of the glacier from a hundred years before.

MCCANTS: And when we see the mix of pasturage go up, we know that there's more animals and less grain production.

ROMER: Wheat, barley - that's how societies feed themselves when they're just scraping along. But get a little richer, you start to be able to throw in a little protein from all those animals in all those pastures.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Anne says that if glaciers aren't your thing, you can also find evidence of this shift by digging around in medieval landfills, counting the mutton bones.

MCCANTS: The mix of food trash, if you will.

ROMER: More animals means more wool, more milk and more meat.

MCCANTS: When we see the mix of the diet tip, we know that there's a broader, higher-level standard of living for more people.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But this isn't happy news for everybody. All the nobles and landlords on the rich side of that medieval wealth gap see these former peasants eating mutton chops and trying on fancy silks from East Asia. And they're like, no, not OK.

ROMER: Because this is a moment in history where this economic change starts to feel like it's threatening the social order in this fundamental way. What's the point of being a noble if all the people who used to be peasants can now just buy their way into the noble lifestyle?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So a new round of laws start getting passed, sumptuary laws, which put limits not just on how much workers can get paid, but even on how they're allowed to spend their money.

MCCANTS: Telling people, you know, if you're below a certain class, you are limited in which colors you're allowed to wear, the quality of the cloth, the cut of the cloth - all right? - what kind of meat you're allowed to put in your diet. To give you a modern equivalent - right? - if you're a university professor, you're not allowed to wear silk, right? You're only allowed to wear silk if you work on Wall Street. I don't know what categories would be allowed to wear silk.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I would hope radio producers.

ROMER: Nah, I don't think we get silk, Alexi.


ROMER: Coarse woolens, coarse woolens.

MCCANTS: Coarse woolens, exactly - horsehair.

ROMER: The sumptuary laws say things like, peasants, you're not allowed to eat guinea fowl or wear the color purple. That's our color. You guys - you wear brown.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And, yes, this sounds kind of silly, little bit petty, maybe. But Anne says this new peasant purchasing power was kind of without precedent. Poor people hadn't ever suddenly just stopped being poor before. For hundreds of years, people's station in life had basically never changed kind of by design.

MCCANTS: So I think the post-plague moment has to be at least as much about that sort of sense that, you know, sort of everything is wrong in the world. And one of the ways you know that everything is wrong in the world is because, you know, your peasant is wearing a color they shouldn't be wearing.

ROMER: For the people in the castles, all these changes felt really threatening.

MCCANTS: And part of this is just about saying, you know, I want things to be the way they were. I want people to know who they are, what their place is, where they belong. And, you know, by golly, I want them to stay there.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But they didn't stay there. The world had changed. And Anne McCants says that if you're looking for a silver lining in these awful moments in human history, that is the silver lining - the chance to remake the world.

MCCANTS: The human toll of these things is staggering. But, you know, they're also an opportunity to think about things from a new angle. Why is it that only nobles should eat, you know, guinea fowl? And that seems trivial, but it's possible that that kind of open thinking leads to something else that's not trivial.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The current pandemic, COVID-19, is thankfully nowhere near as deadly and destructive as the plague was in 14th century Europe.

ROMER: Here in 2020, wealth inequality does not seem to be going away. Some of the richest people have gotten considerably richer since the pandemic began. And for people who were already struggling, life has gotten that much harder. But, Anne says, whenever we do emerge from this lockdown world we're in, we should be ready for the chance to rethink all sorts of things.

MCCANTS: The world can surprise us. So it's good for us to be prepared to be surprised.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Global pandemics, these giant shocks to society, can represent these really rare opportunities to change how the economy works and who it serves.


ROMER: Found any silver linings in giant world catastrophes? Drop us a line. We are We're also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at @PlanetMoney.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt controls the editing guild.

ROMER: I'm Keith Romer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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