Back in the latter half of the 14th century, Y. pestis, also known as the Plague bacillus, was the greatest thing that ever happened to the working man. Here’s Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror:
The relative values of land and labor were turned upside-down. Peasants found their rents reduced and even relinquished for one or more years by landowners desperate to keep their fields in cultivation. Better no revenue at all than that cleared land should be retaken by the wilderness…. At the same time the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest disruption—a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks, and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity. Within a year after the plague had passed through northern France, the textile workers of St. Omer near Amiens had gained three successive wage increases. In many guilds, artisans struck for higher pay and shorter hours. In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary.
This was clearly intolerable, and so the English Parliament issued in 1351 a Statute of Laborers. It was sort of an extreme precursor to both workfare and wage and price controls. Everybody under age 60 had to work or risk being thrown in jail. Any laborer who quit his job would be imprisoned. As for wages, it was forbidden to pay more “than was customary.” Any employer who did otherwise or laborer who accepted higher pay would be obliged to pay any who felt “aggrieved from this”
double the sum that has thus been paid or promised, exacted or received… And if the lords of the towns or manors presume of themselves or through their servants in any way to act contrary to this our present ordinance, then in the Counties, Wapentakes and Trithings suit shall be brought against them in the aforesaid form for the triple penalty (of the sum) thus promised or paid by them or the servants.
It’s easy enough to boss peasants around, but leveling penalties on employers is not easy to achieve, as contemporary students of immigration policy are well aware. This statute, along with a milder prohibition imposed in Paris, was unenforceable, Tuchman reports:
Violations cited by the English Parliament in 1352 show workers demanding and employers paying wages at double and treble the pre-plague rate. Stocks were ordered set up in every town for punishment of offenders. In 1360 imprisonment replaced fines as the penalty and fugitive laborers were declared outlaws. If caught, they were to be branded on the forehead with F for ‘fugitive’ (or possibly for ‘falsity’). New laws were enacted twice more in the 1360s, breeding the resistance that was to come to a head in the great outbreak of 1381.
That would be the Peasant’s Revolt (pictured above), wherein commoners stormed the Tower of London demanding that Richard II enact various reforms. Richard promised to do so, then reneged, then was deposed for unrelated reasons 18 years later, prompting William Shakespeare two centuries after that to put into his mouth a beautiful speech about the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king.
But I digress. The point is that plagues boost wages. The Black Death did it. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic did it. And now Covid-19 has done it. That’s the topic of my latest column in the New Republic.