The Black Plague started in 1346 and ended in 1352. The disease killed at least 25 million people, which resulted in a significant depopulation across several nations. But how did this affect the economy at the time?
After the Plague, the remarkable decrease in population brought about a shortage of laborers. Those who were available to work were also able to demand higher wages because of it. Some estimates show that a typical worker’s wage increased by 50%.
How Did The Black Plague Start?
Almost a third of Europe’s population had been wiped out because of The Black Plague. The disease started in Asia and spread across Europe through trading ships.
Back then, no one knew what the cause of the mysterious disease was. It wasn’t until years later did they discover that it originated from bacteria found on fleas and black rats. The fleas would infect the rats, and they would infect people after they stowed away on ships that docked on several European ports.
So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician it seemed as if one sick person could infect the whole world.Barbara Tuchman
(Source: World History – Wages and the Black Death)
Did the Rulers Try to Stop Wages From Increasing?
The Plague affected everyone from every class. But it was the peasants who suffered the most during this time. As more and more people died, it became harder for those in the upper class to find people to plow the fields, harvest the crops, and produce other goods needed. It was then when the peasants decided to demand higher wages.
European leaders enforced laws for these workers to accept the same wages they did before the Black Plague began to stop this nonsense. The law was issued in 1351 and stated that every healthy unemployed individual below the age of 60 must work for any person willing to hire them. Those that violated the law would be punished and fined.
By 1360 the consequences got worse. Those who disobeyed and demanded better pay were sent to prison. If they escaped, they would be branded with the letter “F” on their foreheads. (Source: World History – Wages and the Black Death)
How Did Increased Worker Wages Affect the Economy?
The amount of work to be done did not change. However, because the workers had more to work on, they became more productive because they had less manpower. As a result, they produced more goods and services. This made employers happy, which led them to pay more for the excellent job done.
At this point, it was pretty apparent that the law that was enforced was not effective. Some employers would try to appease their workers by giving them payments in kind instead. Some of them would eventually pay higher wages illegally because there were just a few people.
As the wages for these workers rose, they were able to afford more things. Thus causing a chain reaction – there was a higher demand for goods, and the production increased. These workers eventually earned enough to move away from the estates they worked on and bought their own property. (Source: World History – Wages and the Black Death)