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Catastrophic contributions to modernity

"Catastrophic contributions to modernity" Continued...

The horror of what took place is difficult to imagine. The great Italian philosopher and literary intellectual Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) wrote to a friend of “empty houses, derelict cities, ruined estates, fields strewn with cadavers, a horrible and vast solitude encompassing the whole world.” Parish registers from the Burgundian village of Givry show a population of about 1,200 in 1340, with deaths averaging about 30 a year; then, in a fourteen-week period in 1348, 615 deaths were recorded. There wasn’t room in the graveyard for such a number, and soon bodies were being pushed into trenches, layer upon layer.

Contemporary accounts from across Europe report the dedication of nuns and monks in caring for the afflicted and seeing to their burial, but there was no keeping up. Everywhere there were piles of putrefying corpses and many houses and cottages in which everyone lay dead. An agonized Italian father wrote about conditions in the city of Siena:

And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could. … And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. … And I … buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.

Nowhere was there any safety, not even in remote villages. Not even in Iceland, where the fatality rate may have been as high as 60 percent.

The End of Serfdom

Before the Black Death struck, serfs did most of the farming in Europe. A serf was a peasant to whom a landowner provided a parcel, as well as housing, in return for labor in the landowner’s fields. Serfs had a hereditary right to their land; in return they were bound to their land and their landlord—that is, they couldn’t be dispossessed, but they couldn’t leave. In addition to providing serfs with land, the seigneurs (as landowners were called in England as well as on the Continent) provided them with protection.

Not all medieval peasants were serfs. Many freely rented their land without any additional obligations to a landlord. The Domesday Book showed that at the end of the eleventh century, 12 percent of the population of England consisted of free peasants, while 35 percent were serfs. The proportion of free peasants to serfs began to increase by the start of the fourteenth century, and the immense loss of life caused by the Black Death so accelerated this trend that serfdom soon disappeared in western Europe.

A direct result of the Black Death was an immense amount of agricultural land having no surviving owners or heirs. Consequently, surviving landowners greatly expanded their holdings. As their fields doubled and tripled in size, they faced an immediate crisis: a serious shortage of labor. So landowners began to compete for labor, with the result that both wages and conditions of employment improved. In England, for example, a plowman’s average wage rose from 2 shillings a week in 1347 to 7 shillings in 1349 and to 10 shillings, 6 pence, in 1350. Similar increases occurred everywhere. Perhaps even more important, conditions of tenancy changed dramatically too. Unless freed from the rules binding them to the land, serfs simply deserted and signed on as free tenants elsewhere—to which their new landlords turned blind eyes. To keep their tenants, landlords had to emancipate them from serfdom. Moreover, new lease agreements increasingly favored the peasant farmer: landlords agreed to furnish seed, oxen or horse teams, and better housing, all for lower rents. Lack of tenants also prompted many landowners to abandon farming in favor of the far-less-labor-intensive grazing of livestock—especially sheep and cattle. This development, combined with the greater affluence of the laboring classes, increased the consumption of meat; the increase in protein intake was quickly reflected in growth and strength.

Rapidly growing opportunities in expanding industries and other forms of urban employment also improved the situation of the peasantry. In fact, the real wages of urban construction workers were as high in the mid-fifteenth century as at the end of the nineteenth century. In England in the late fourteenth century, the rapidly growing industry of woolen manufacturing offered wages that attracted many workers away from rural employment, thereby putting increased upward pressure on wages. It should be noted that the demand for woolen garments grew partly in response to the increasingly colder climate.

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