What were the origins of the Black Death? What impact did the plague have on society? Are there similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic?
In The Silk Roads, historian Peter Frankopan discusses the Black Death in the context of East-West dynamics. He notes how it changed the world economy and the balance of power. Some commentators compare that shift to today’s Great Resignation.
Keep reading to understand the impact of the Black Death and how it compares to what we’re seeing with Covid-19.
The Impact of the Black Death
As Frankopan notes, the Silk Roads didn’t just bring new luxury goods from the East to the West. The new trading networks also brought terrifying diseases like the bubonic plague from their endemic home on the Central Asian steppes into Europe and the Middle East—unleashing a pandemic that would kill tens of millions of people in the mid-14th century. (An estimated 30 to 60% of the population of Europe perished.) His interest is primarily in the impact of the Black Death on the global economy.
|The Origins of the Plague in Kyrgyzstan|
Recent scholarship has tracked down the precise origins of the 1347 bubonic plague outbreak. In 2017, researchers began studying a medieval cemetery in the Tian Shan mountains in what is today Kyrgyzstan. There, they found that a disproportionate share of the gravestones bore inscriptions that told of the deceased dying from an unknown “pestilence”—and that nearly all these people had died in just two years: 1338 and 1339, just a few years before the major European outbreak. After exhuming some of the bodies and extracting genetic material from the bones and teeth of the deceased, the researchers discovered that these people had indeed been killed by the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis.
Further, they found that the bacterium inside these victims was the most recent direct ancestor of the bacterium responsible for the 1347 outbreak. These researchers claim that this proves the plague victims found in that graveyard in Kyrgyzstan represent the origin point of the pandemic strain of plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century and other strains of plague that still circulate today.
According to Frankopan, the depopulation in Europe also resulted in a major shock to the labor supply—the sudden scarcity of labor boosted wages and bargaining power for those who managed to survive the plague, forcing landlords to lower rents and reduce many of the repressive and onerous restrictions of the feudal economy. This gave European peasants and artisans new disposable income, boosting demand for goods, and, according to Frankopan, beginning Europe’s global economic dominance.
|The Black Death and the Post-Covid Great Resignation|
Some commentators have noted that the labor market scarcity in Europe in the wake of the Black Death has some parallels with the “Great Resignation” in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the death toll from Covid-19 was far lower than that of the Black Death, the Covid-19 pandemic did spark a massive voluntary resignation from the workforce—creating a significant labor shortage that boosted the wages of workers who were willing and able to remain in the workforce, similar to the economic gains plague survivors enjoyed in the 14th century.
Over 38 million people quit their jobs in 2021, citing a desire for greater work-life balance, less potential exposure to the coronavirus, and, like their 14th-century predecessors, higher pay. One historian argues that shocks to the labor supply—and the social unrest that ensues—have consistently followed deadly pandemics as the working class seeks to use its increased bargaining power to assert greater control over the economy. Covid-19 has so far proven to be no exception, as wages have soared in previously low-wage sectors of the economy, with the accommodation and food services sector seeing wage hikes of over 18% since the start of the pandemic.