World History 1 260 - 16.4.1 Economic and Social Changes in Europe

Just as political entities and empires broke down or evolved over the course of the fourteenth century, so too did the social structures and hierarchies that defined much of the medieval period, especially in western Europe. In many medieval cities, the merchant class began to acquire increasing wealth and power, while in the countryside the political and social pyramid known as feudalism began to weaken. Feudalism had been defined by a small elite group of hereditary landowners governing the lives of the peasants known as serfs who worked their lands. In exchange for the privilege, serfs paid rent in the form of labor, which generally kept them tied to the land in servitude with little income to spare. This dependent relationship began to disintegrate, however, in the wake of the Great Famine, Black Death, and Hundred Years’ War.

Given massive depopulation and the loss of resources they needed to survive, people increasingly chose to leave locations to which they had formerly been anchored. Peasants left the feudal estates on which their families had lived for generations, as landlords elsewhere offered more generous terms of labor to attract workers who could replace the dead. Many peasants also left the countryside to seek wage labor and employment in cities, which began experiencing significant labor shortages as a result of the plague’s staggering death toll. Because the demand for labor was so high, peasants who remained in the countryside, especially males, were now able to press their employers for more money and rights.

However, power did not suddenly shift away from the noble landowners in favor of the peasantry and common people. European rulers sought to restore the status quo and ensure the nobility had sufficient access to peasant labor by passing laws that fixed wages at pre–Black Death levels. In 1349, an English law required laborers to accept wages at the level that would have been paid in 1346. Two years later, England’s 1351 Statute of Labourers required all unemployed and able-bodied people under sixty years of age to accept whatever work was offered to them. Similar laws were enacted elsewhere in Europe.

In towns, where labor shortages were also a problem, rules requiring guild membership for artisans seeking to practice their crafts were often relaxed, making it easier for newcomers to engage in craft production. Guild masters often responded to the need for labor by shortening the time that apprentices had to serve, which may have helped to attract willing young men to their shops. The same masters, however, often changed the rules of their guild so that only the sons and sons-in-law of current masters could become masters themselves. The enterprising peasant might thus be able to find an apprenticeship in a trade, but he would not be able to advance to the highest level and become an independent master or the employer of others.

The Past Meets the Present

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Although the devastation of the Black Death may seem difficult to fathom in an era with access to modern scientific knowledge and medical technologies, COVID-19 clearly overwhelmed contemporary public health systems across the globe in 2020–2021. Far more than a health crisis, the pandemic has also had disastrous social and economic effects. In addition to causing significant loss of life worldwide, it has disrupted global supply chains, food systems, and the world of work. The global recession of 2020 was the deepest since the culmination of World War II. Millions of people remain at risk of falling into extreme poverty, particularly in low-income countries. According to the World Bank, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more than eighty-eight million people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa into poverty in 2020 alone.

In addition to its impact on health and economic systems more generally, the pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of the global food system. Border closures, quarantine measures, and trade restrictions made it more difficult for workers to harvest crops and for farmers to reach their markets, leaving many people with reduced access to healthful and affordable food. And as millions of wage earners lost jobs or fell ill, rates of food insecurity and malnourishment continued to increase, while the logistic system through which goods traveled became strained, and many essentials became much harder to find.

The COVID-19 pandemic also radically altered the patterns of human interaction as social distancing requirements transformed everyday routines and forced many to avoid family members, friends, schools, workplaces, stores, and support networks and even to suspend their routine health care. The psychological effects of quarantine, financial loss, and infection fears led to a worsening of chronic health problems, increased substance use, and elevated risk of adverse mental health outcomes including depression.

  • How would you compare the experience of living through the modern global pandemic of COVID-19 to the fourteenth century’s experience of the plague?
  • Considering the effects of both the plague and the COVID-19 pandemic, what can we say about the positives and negatives of an increasingly globalized world?

Link to Learning

The experience of infectious disease can be different depending on a variety of factors, especially access to wealth. While diseases do not discriminate between the poor and the rich, our ability to avoid exposure does. This article from TheConversation.com provides some fascinating contrasts between the Black Death pandemic in the fourteenth century and the COVID-19 global pandemic in the modern world.

Emboldened by the shift in power and angered when the nobility attempted to limit their economic opportunities, peasants launched rebellions that further damaged the foundations of feudalism by calling into question the lords’ traditional privileges. These popular revolts, such as the Jacquerie (a French word for a particular type of garment that came to be associated with peasants and peasant uprisings) of northern France in 1358 and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, included not only peasants but also merchants, craftspeople, and other common people. Although the landowning elites ultimately prevailed in most of these clashes, their role was changing rapidly. With fewer people to work their land and generate income for them, their collective wealth contracted significantly. The power of local nobles and landowners was also being eclipsed by more powerful monarchs and emerging urban economies that bolstered the growth of towns and cities.

In addition, the death of many members of the clergy during the Black Death made monarchs more dependent on the merchant class to perform services for which education was required. The rising prominence of the merchant class that resulted, coupled with the growing centralization of monarchical power, gradually eroded some of the traditional privileges and prerogatives of landed elites. Although some regions of the continent, particularly the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, remained a largely decentralized and fragmented collection of principalities, by the end of the fourteenth century, England and France had begun to lay the foundations of the centralized modern nation-state to replace the power of the nobles.

Another impetus for the rise of centralized monarchies and the reduction of the nobility’s authority was the Hundred Years’ War. This conflict not only reinforced budding notions of national identity, but it also changed the nature of warfare and minimized the nobles’ traditional military role as expensively trained and outfitted cavalry officers. The use of new weapons and tactics rendered the cavalry-focused armies of the feudal era all but obsolete, because large professional standing armies paid for by monarchs could defeat mounted knights with the use of the longbow. Thus, the new type of warfare chipped away at the traditional feudal prerogatives and prestige of social elites. The growth of professional armies also offered peasants the potential for social mobility, because they were able to earn a regular wage for military service while also sharing in the spoils of war.

Ultimately, the combination of depopulation, shifting military practices, and centralization of monarchical power led to the demise of feudalism. Although profound social disparities persisted in the wake of its decline, increased opportunities for social mobility and the emergence of centralized monarchical bureaucracies began to erode the feudal divide between commoners, serfs, nobles, and the wealthiest landowners.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax