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Black Death: The Economics of Plague 1, Wages Down

Something unexpected happens when 40% of the population dies of disease... radical local differences in labor costs. Halesowen Abbey owns rich farmlands in the English Midlands and rents out farmland of poorer quality to tenant farmers. Now the Abbey needs more people to work their best fields so they draw their labor force from the surviving tenant farms. Entire villages disappear as these villagers move to better digs. With fewer people to feed and only the best fields in production, the economics of farming comes into balance, losing only 12% of the Abbey's land in production. But with so many children dead from the Black Death, a generation of future laborers is lost.[1] The pinch won't be felt for a while but it's coming. [2] [3]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
FYI, this summary is focused on economics but make no mistake, the Abbey is engaged in considerable charity as well. Nevertheless, an abbot is selected more for his business and managerial skills than for his piety. The Abbey is as much a business as anything else. It also acts as a motel for travelers. Regarding the labor shortage in generations to come, the laws of supply and demand are at work here. Currently there is a local labor glut so wages are low.... for now.... but as the current generation dies off, there will be fewer people to take their places and thus wages will rise, adding to the costs of running a farm and cutting into the Abby's money profits... (not the religious prophets).

Black Death: The Economics of Plague 2, Wages Up

In some localities, the Black Death has created a glut in available laborers and thus lower wages such as at Halesowen Abbey. BUT... these same laborers are leaving OTHER MANORS! In THOSE localities, wage demands are rising sharply. This causes an English poet to comment, "For the very little they do, they demand the highest pay." This disparity in wages brings about price controls and a wage freeze. The Ordinance of Labourers is considered the first of the labor laws. It was supposed to fix wages and prices at pre-Plague levels but it's not going to work. Yet, this law will remain on the books until 1863. [4] [5] [6] [7]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
Wage and price fixing will not work, but the law will create a stratification of the peasantry where lucky peasants are now locked into good acreage and eventually become rich enough to buy their own plot of land. Unlucky peasants are now locked into poor acreage and class structure. The rich peasants will gain a familiar title: yeoman. "Yeoman's work" is the work done for yourself. Apparently they worked very hard when they had themselves as bosses. In time, the term will apply to various commoner positions and in the military. [8] [9]

Black Death: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

The Plague Panic continues northward as the Europeans search for causes of the Black Death pandemic. Many blame the Jews for poisoning the wells. In Strasbourg, on St. Valentine's Day, a special house is built for the Jews. They march 900 Jews into the house while abusing them and stripping them of their clothes. The citizens then set the house aflame. (The connection to the Holocaust of the modern day is obvious). The rest of the Jews of Strasbourg are banned. This scene will be repeated over and over again all over Europe with the same goal in mind.... to stop the Harbinger of Death. The European death toll is well into the millions by now. For the people of the Middle Ages... this is their "Zombie Apocalypse". [10]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
Accusations of "poisoning the wells" is a recurring theme in Jewish persecution but such accusations have never caused this level of panic before. The idea of germs being the cause is totally foreign to them. Doctors think it is due to "strange humors" entering the body through one's pores, but let's give them a break. For their ignorance, the doctors are doing remarkably well. For the less critical thinkers, disease is black magic or poison.

FYI: Alex Shrugged is Jewish and it is difficult to look upon this disaster with anything approaching objectivity. Nevertheless, the issue here seems to be that the Jews are not dying of the Black Death in the percentages that the Christians are. Why is this? It is probably for two reasons: 1. Jews are isolated from the rest of the town by law and Jewish law prohibiting drinking wine with a non-Jew reduces interaction with non-Jews. (Oddly enough, drinking hard liquor with a non-Jew is fine. Go figure.) 2. Jewish laws concerning personal, daily cleanliness reduces the number of flea bites a Jew is likely to receive. It's not zero, but keep in mind that in Central Asia, the Black Death didn't kill nearly as quickly as what is happening in Europe at this time. There are reasons for that and one of them is personal hygiene.

This Year on Wikipedia

Year 1349, Wikipedia.

See Also


  1. Dols, Michael W. The Black Death in the Middle East, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977. pp. 230-231. (BOOK) quote="An absolute decline [in the population of Egypt] is highly probable, due to the fact that the endemic disease struck primarily young women and children, thus greatly limiting fertility and replacement. In Europe, where young women and children formed a disproportionate element among the plague victims, the same phenomenon is noted by chroniclers and physicians."
  2. Cantor, Norman F., In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, Harper Perennial, 2001. pp. 82-88.(BOOK) quote="The economic historian John Hatchet showed the squeeze in labor costs for the landlords did not come immediately after the catastrophe 1349, but a generation later, in the 1370s. By then the surplus laborers who had eagerly and gratefully taken up rent-paying farms were all gone."
  3. Halesowen Abbey - Wikipedia, 2014 [last update]
  4. Ordinance of Laborers. Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Fordham.edu. 1349.
  5. Ordinance of Labourers 1349 - Wikipedia, 2014 [last update]
  6. English Poor Laws: Medieval Poor Laws - Wikipedia, 2014 [last update]
  7. John Gower, poet - Wikipedia, 2014 [last update]
  8. Cantor, Norman F., In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, Harper Perennial, 2001. p. 91.(BOOK) quote="The wealthiest peasants took advantage of the social dislocations caused by the plague and the poorer peasants sank further into dependency and misery."
  9. Yeoman - Wikipedia, 2014 [last update]
  10. Cantor, Norman F., In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, Harper Perennial, 2001. pp. 156-157.(BOOK) quote="They were led to their own cemetery into a house prepared for their burning and on the way they were stripped almost naked by the crowd which ripped off their clothes and found much money that had been concealed."

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