The Long-Term Impact of the Black Death on the Medieval Agriculture
As one of the most severe plagues in human history, the Black Death was unprecedented in two ways: on one hand, it was undoubtedly a terrible nightmare, which swept the entire Europe and killed so many people; however, on the other hand, it was also a unique event that accelerated the process of European agricultural history. In years before the Black Death, the European agriculture was already in trouble. Agriculture has long been the foundation of economy and society, especially during the time as early as in the Middle Ages.
As the foundation of agriculture, corn production was the most important agricultural activity at the time. However, corn production faced several problems, which severely cumbered the development of agriculture. The shortage of livestock was one of the obstacles, which led to both a lack of manure and low efficiency in culturing. Other reasons such as over-cultivation and lack of water conservancy facilities also encumbered the development of agriculture. At the same time, population was growing rapidly.
Although the estimations of the growth rate were not exactly the same, there was a consensus among historians that the gross population in Europe almost doubled between 11th and 14th century. In year 1000 and year 1300, the population in France was 5 million and 15 million respectively; it was 3 million and 12 million in Germany respectively; in Italy the population was 5 million and 10 million respectively; and in the British Isles, it was 2 and 5 million. (1) A problem with a rapid population growth is that the population may gradually outgrow agriculture production.
The poor balance between the rapid growing population and relatively slow growing agriculture once collapses, there would certainly be a severe disaster. As some historians pointed out, “output continued to rise but not as quickly as populations. High famine- and disease-related mortality led to demographic collapse and the circle started again. ” (2) Though this was probably not the main reason of the eruption of the Black Death, the unbalance of population and productivity did contribute to the severity of the plague. The Black Death led first to short-term impacts.
The most severe and direct impact of the Black Death to the European society was its threat and damage to the population. The epidemic was unrelenting at that time, as it carried with it a high mortality and the ability to infect fast, and joint with the undeveloped medicine system in the Middle Ages. The Black Death first attacked the area of Mediterranean, and the area along the Atlantic Ocean, where the trade centers and crowed harbors were. Then it marched all the way into the inland, virus carried by people and rats both through waterways and in-land traffic. In urban areas, the plague was especially menacing, since a higher population ensity offered the virus more opportunities to spread through contact between people.
What’s more, the poor condition of public health facilities contributed to the severity of the plague. It is hard to assert an exact average mortality rate caused by the Black Death, because the severity of the plague varied in different parts of Europe and it also differed in urban and rural areas. There were places highly struck by the epidemic with mortality rates higher than 50%, such as the eastern area in England; and there were also places, such as the region of Bohemia, with a relatively low mortality rate of under 15%.
There is another problem with the available statistics however, as most of these statistics only record the death of people who had a stable income and could afford tax or rent. This meant that the lower class of poor workers and peasants were not covered by most of the records. Thus we can only draw an estimated conclusion that, in general, the average mortality in Europe during the Black Death was between 30~50% (3). The Black Death also had another short-term impact, as it deeply damaged the agriculture in many ways. The first and most direct impact was that it led to a serious shortage of agricultural labor.
Human labor was one of the most important elements in agriculture, especially in the Middle Ages, when agricultural technique and devices hadn’t been well developed. The high mortality and the lasting depopulation during the Black Death “led to an acute shortage of labor in the countryside” (4) thus impairing the productivity. The depopulation was accompanied by a reduction of output. In Leicester in England, there was severe shortage of servants and laborers, and “many crops rotted unharvested in the fields” (5). In the village of Elkington in Northamptonshire, the number of taxpayers seems to have decreased due to epopulation during the period between 1377 and 1412(6); and “by the first decade of the fifteenth century, grain production levels between the Tyne and Tees appear to have been less than one-third their level of a century earlier.
Other parts in Europe suffered just as much. In Spain, depopulated villages and rising wages suggested that the area cultivated with cereals and vines fell in the aftermath of the Black Death; in the area around Cambrai in France, grain productivity fell up to 50 percent between 1320 to 1370 and witnessed a further drop of 25 percent by the mid fifteen century. 8) The Black Death added to the misery of the human society in Medieval Europe, which had already suffered great losses during the Great Famine. “Just over thirty years later (after the great famine), the Black Death swept through Europe, leaving few areas untouched, and was accompanied by a collapse in output levels. ”(9) The Black Death disturbed the normal operation of the economy, as it was accompanied by an agricultural crisis. It seemed that the Black Death was an evil disaster which made the entire continent into a hell.
But actually it was not the complete story. In addition to the immediate influences of depopulation and agricultural recession, the Black Death caused some deeper and long-term effects: it accelerated the decline of the serfdom and manorial system and thus, to some extent, altered the course of the European economy. As mentioned before, the Black Death caused a high mortality rate of approximately 30%~50%. With less labor, land lords had no choice but to reduce the rent in order to keep the peasants on their lands. As a result, the wages of those peasants increased.
After the Black Death, the lucky survived peasants couldn’t bear the same burden as before the plague, and since labor turned out to be a scarce resource after the Black Death, the peasants had advantages when negotiating. Because of this, peasants started to demand more benefits for themselves. Though “this rising aspirations of workers prompted a variety of public and private strategies on the part of the employing classes to control them more tightly” , and some efforts were taken to control wages, but as “ Landlords had no incentive to maintain a landless class simply for the sake of keeping wages low.
They could not individually influence the prevailing wage rate, but they could improve their incomes by taking new tenants onto their land”, so they finally “negotiated wages upwards” “to get the labor they needed. ” (10) At the same time, the mobility of serfs greatly increased and some peasants were able to flee from one manor to another. The main condition which made this mobility possible was the fact that labor was so scarce that serfs were usually welcomed by the manors they moved to. “Sturdy young men and women, hard workers, at a time that labor was scarce, could leave home and find employment elsewhere, no questions asked.
While if lords didn’t allow their freedom, they could say that “they were determined to go and live somewhere else where they could be free—they and their descendants. ” (12) And some of the serfs, though not many, even tried to migrate to towns where serfs were free, with the restriction that only if they managed to survive in the town for more than one year, could they be granted freedom. After the Black Death, the serfdom and manorial system were about to collapse, but this system had already begun to decline as early as the 13th century.
Part of the cause of the decline was a change in the economic environment. Before the Black Death, as the economy grew, many of the areas in Europe began to commercialize. The original type of labor rents began to fail and there was instead an emergence of money rents. For example, in Cambridgeshire, the percentage relation of the money rent of free tenants, the money rent of villein, and labor rent was 32-28-40 per cent, according to the Hundred Rolls; in Bedfordshire, villein rent accounts for 61 per cent of the total, and the corresponding figure was 76 per cent in Buckinghamshire.
The transformation of labor rent into money rent required the peasants to sell their harvest in the market, thus it helped peasants to expand their market involvement and to save some properties. Some of the serfs were able to buy partial or even complete freedom with the money they got from the market. And the manorial system itself had inner problems. “Manorial production had long been a dubious form of production” since “the yield from this type of production was so poor that even a slight change in the circumstances which surrounded it would wholly alter its method. (14) And here, the Black Death to some extent acted as the “slight” change that accelerated the process of collapse. So, as we can see, the decline of serfdom and manorial system had already begun before the Black Death, and though the Black Death wasn’t the original cause of the erosion of serfdom, it did accelerate the process as a big turning point.
“The manorial system is broken up from within; but the process was accelerated under the influence of a factor exogenous to society—that is, the Black Death and its demographic consequences. (15) After the plague, the western European world changed greatly. In 15th century, servile obligations disappeared in many areas; in some regions in Italy and France appeared another system. In this system, lords were responsible to supply seeds and tools in addition to lands to the peasants; the products were allocated to lords and peasants at a prearranged proportion, regardless of the gross harvest amount; the peasants were free of any servile obligations. And in 16th century, serfdom was replaced by a new type of contract in most areas in Western Europe.
According to this contract, peasants had access to the land while lords own the lands; after paying a certain amount of rent, peasants were free to sell the rest of the harvest in market; peasants were also free to leave the land, and lord had no right to force them back; peasants also had the right to allocate and dispose their properties. (16) However, this wasn’t the end of the story. The Black Death somehow led to a reappearance of serfdom in Eastern Europe. In order to increase their benefits, lords in Eastern Europe needed cheap labor whose freedoms they could restrict.
So after the Black Death, the lords tried harder to force the peasants to stay in their lands, and increased their servile labor. In addition, as local monarchs were weak in Eastern Europe, it was even more difficult for peasants to escape from their lords without the support of monarchs. The Black Death also, to some extent, promoted a restructure of the economy in the Middle Ages. In a new economic environment when the prices of most products sky-rocked while the price of grain decreased, it could be costly for those lords who only produced grain.
With the intention to earn more profit, many lords and peasants began to diversify their products and planted more commercial crops. For example, many cultivators began to cultivate saffron, a commercial crop with high value, in the mid-fifteen century in Cambridge shire in England. (17) As living standards improved, the demand for products such as wine, sugar and fruits also increased, so did the productivity of these crops. Productivity of some crops related to textile, one of the most developed industries in medieval Europe, also increased.
And as the price of wool increased with a growing demand for it, combined with the scarcity of labor and the fact that sheep required little labor, many areas in Europe, such as Central Italy, the Roman Campagna, the Castiles and England, witnessed an “extraordinary development in one form of pasture-farming, that of sheep-rearing”. (18) Thus, in conclusion, rarely in history did a single epidemic ever so greatly impact an entire population and society across a continent as the Black Death did.
It was a living hell for European people at that time, not only because of the high mortality rate but also the turbulence it created in the entire human society. But in the long-term, it accelerated the process of European agricultural transformation, and thus its long-term effects included the liberation of labor after the Black Death which helped the European economy to develop further.