Public Health

The Political Impact of the Black Death

How a 14th-century pandemic shaped the course of world history

Jan P. Vogler
3Streams
Published in
5 min readAug 4, 2021

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Sometimes events that last for only a few years profoundly shape the course of world history. Consider World War Two: the six years between 1939 and 1945 determined whether or not large parts of the globe would come to be ruled by the fascist empires of Germany, Japan, and (to a lesser extent) Italy. The military defeat of these powers paved the way for the Cold War, altering the history of humankind forever.

Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash

Given its self-evident importance, WWII has long been subjected to intense scrutiny by political scientists, who have analyzed its origins and characteristics, as well as its short-, medium-, and long-term consequences. The same could be said for World War One, which is often thought to be the starting point of the modern discipline of international politics.

Yet there is another event in world history that was similarly impactful but that, until recently, has mostly been ignored by the discipline of political science. We speak here of the Black Death — an outbreak of plague that devastated Europe between 1347 and 1351.

Although this pandemic only lasted for a few years, it fundamentally transformed European societies, ushered in the end of the medieval period, and can be seen as the starting point of early modernity. (Subsequent bouts of plague helped reinforce the changes originally ushered in by the Black Death.) In a recent World Politics article, we analyze the profound and long-lasting impact this pandemic had on the course of European and German history.

The Black Death killed an estimated 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. The magnitude of destruction was unparalleled.

Conservative Party Vote Share by Electoral District (1871). In the early 1870s, the Conservative Party was a powerful political force in the parts of Germany that had historically been mostly spared from the Black Death. Because serfdom had persisted in those areas, there was little experience with democratic forms of government and high socioeconomic inequality represented the perfect conditions for the Conservative Party to thrive.

It is therefore not surprising that many people thought that they were witnessing the apocalypse. Among the most consequential effects of the high death toll was a complete reversal in the relative values of labor and land in the areas laid low by the pandemic.

Prior to the Black Death, across most of Europe land was scarce and lords controlled an abundant agricultural labor force subjected to serfdom — an exploitative form of labor coercion that sharply restricted freedom of employment and movement. Yet, in areas with a high death toll, the Black Death put an end to this practice, as it led to a shortage of labor that greatly improved the bargaining position of laborers. The scarcity of labor generated intense competition among the lords for the labor of the surviving peasants. Many such peasants ended up fleeing their manors in the hopes of finding better working conditions and pay elsewhere.

These dynamics fundamentally changed socioeconomic conditions in the areas that suffered from the highest death tolls. In those areas, the system of serfdom was replaced by an emerging free labor market. Given the lords’ weakened capacity to directly administer their lands, many peasants began to work on the land collectively and to self-govern, without direct oversight by the nobility. Many former serfs also fled to the cities, which led to a pattern of increased urbanization.

In general, the bargaining power of laborers increased massively, while the power of those who possessed land notably declined. In numerous cities and towns, the newly gained strength by the lower socioeconomic groups also led to the institutionalization of electoral participation. The adoption of these early forms of democracy in combination with the ability of peasants to self-govern radically altered power structures in medieval society. Yet in areas that were only lightly hit by the Black Death, such dynamics did not unfold because labor had not become scarce. Thus, in those areas serfdom persisted, making the adoption of proto-democratic institutions unlikely.

In our recent contribution, we analyze the long-term effects of this divergence in political-economic development. We focus on the lands of German-speaking Central Europe (or the Holy Roman Empire). The Holy Roman Empire was a large but weak confederation, consisting of hundreds of different local political units. Major military conflicts, such as the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), solidified the Empire’s decentralized organization and prevented the emergence of a centralized nation state, which in turn gave ample space for local political traditions to persist over time.

Because this decentralization lasted until the nineteenth century, we find that even when the first federal democratic elections were held in a unified Germany in the early 1870s, the historical divergence in political cultures created by the Black Death was still visible. In areas that were hit hardest by the pandemic (primarily in western and southern Germany), antidemocratic parties that defended the privileges of the landed elites fared poorly at the ballot box. Any semblance of a culture of deference to traditional aristocratic elites had long since eroded in these areas.

Moreover, the socioeconomic conditions in said areas were characterized by greater equality and higher levels of urbanization, which made it nearly impossible for the landed elites to create the same kind of political apparatus they had assembled elsewhere. To the contrary, in areas where serfdom had persisted for many centuries, the nobility was politically influential, in part because those areas had never developed robust democratic institutions and were still characterized by high levels of socioeconomic inequality. There, the landed elite’s unchecked use of coercion, clientelism, and intimidation allowed them to achieve significant electoral victories.

But the story does not end there. Despite intensifying industrialization and major events such as WWI, several centuries of diverging political development could not just be shaken off quickly. While the strength of the landed elites decreased markedly between the 1870s and the 1930s, the centuries-long inexperience that many parts of Germany had with democratic institutions was still visible in the Weimar Republic’s fateful 1930 and July 1932 elections. In those elections, the areas that had historically only been lightly hit by the Black Death and where serfdom had endured for many generations had significantly higher vote shares for Hitler’s Nazi party. From our perspective, this likely reflects the residues of an anti-democratic political culture. And, as we know well, the Nazi party’s electoral success was the starting point of the darkest chapter in German history.

Therefore, the two events discussed here, WWII and the Black Death, both of which indubitably shaped the course of world history, may be linked to one another in a way that was previously unknown.

This post is based on the authors’ recent World Politics article, which can be accessed here.

Authors:

Daniel W. Gingerich is Associate Professor of Politics, Director of the Quantitative Collaborative, and Co-Director of the Corruption Laboratory for Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law (CLEAR Lab — Democracy Initiative) at the University of Virginia.

Jan P. Vogler is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Political Economy of Good Government in the CLEAR Lab (Democracy Initiative) and in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. In fall 2021, he will join the University of Konstanz in Germany as an Assistant Professor in Quantitative Social Science. His Twitter handle is: @Jan_Vogler

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Jan P. Vogler
3Streams
Writer for

Assistant Professor at the University of Konstanz. PhD from Duke University.