Plagues and Social Change: Putting Covid-19 in Historical Context

Extract from the plague-era Second Statute of Laborers, 1351. British National Archives, C 74/1, m. 18 (1351).

Alvin Finkel

After the Black Death of 1347-52, which cut the population of Europe in half and accounted for some 75 million deaths globally, the feudal system faced challenges from peasant uprisings while labour shortages resulted in large wage increases for day workers. Orphanages and hospitals, run by churches and wealthy lay people, sprang up in towns across the continent. While social changes in the aftermath of plagues build on transformations that were already occurring in societies, they often rapidly accelerate such changes.

The so-called Justinian plague from 541 to 750, which may have accounted for as many deaths as the Black Death, severely limited ambitions of the Eastern Roman Empire to extend its reach and eventually re-establish the western empire that had been captured in the century before the plague struck. The Persians and other powers in the eastern Mediterranean developed immunities to the diseases that were causing massive declines in the Roman population. So Constantinople was reduced mainly to campaigns to hold on to whatever territories it already held in the pre-plague period.[i]

In the aftermath of the Black Death, the monarchy led efforts by landlords and town guilds to maintain the status quo and resist efforts by workers to get more wages and by peasants to keep more of their crop from the exactions of lords, the church, and the monarchy. In England, the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351 fixed wages at pre-plague levels and forbid workers and peasants from leaving their landlord or employer as long as he had work for them. But such anti-worker legislation proved unenforceable, and employers, however reluctantly, bid against one another for the services of a reduced labour force. Centuries-old feudal norms enforced by tradition and by arms capitulated to capitalist relations between owners and workers. [ii]

The emerging working class both on the land and in the towns soon found that their increased earnings were threatened both by merchant efforts to raise prices and by monarchical imposition of new taxes to rebuild their kingdoms and pay for wars among emerging nation-states. Notions of a “moral economy” characterized by fixed prices and minimal taxes emerged among the masses. Its essential philosophy was that workers should have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour rather than have them stolen by the ruling classes.[iii] Elite rejection of workers’ demands led to peasant and worker revolts in the latter half of the 1300s in England, France, Spain, Flanders, and the Italian and German-language states. All were bloodily suppressed. But the post-plague ideas of a “moral economy” would remain important to worker and peasant thought and actions.[iv]

The devastating pandemic and subsequent relatively less disastrous epidemics also led to the opening of countless orphanages, foundling hospitals, hospitals set aside for plague victims, quarantine hospitals, and hospitals for the poor. Compassion for orphans of better-off families played a role here and institutions for their benefit focused on keeping the high-born from falling into the poverty and anonymity of the popular classes.  But, in the aftermath of the post-pandemic revolts from below, the Roman Catholic Church, wealthy aristocrats, and merchants, who sponsored the massive expansion of charitable institutions, were also mindful of the “lower orders.”  Orphans from working families and abandoned children often found themselves in elite-run orphanages where every economy was taken, and respect for their betters was inculcated along with training for modest vocations. [v] As is still the case today, pandemics often revealed how precarious the position of the poor was and how their few resources for survival could collapse when disaster struck. The Bolognese jurist Alessandro Stiatici wrote in the aftermath of a plague in the 1520s, that

Many poor men and women died of hunger…leaving their children of both sexes abandoned and stripped of every means of subsistence. These, having no home at all, slept under the porticoes, or like beasts in holes and caverns, or at night in the trash heaps and dung hills. By day they were seen going around the city all foul, filthy, and smelly, their faces and limbs lean and gaunt, looking as though they had stepped out of the grave…While a few were picked up, many of these boys and girls found themselves on the streets, fed and helped only by charitable people and servants of God.[vi]

Plagues had long been regarded as God’s punishment for individuals’ sins and so public authorities responded to them with death sentences for acts deemed immoral and penitential processions to persuade God that good Christians intended to change their ways. But the frequency of plagues in the late medieval period led to medical studies that determined human causes of plagues and possible ways to avoid plagues or minimize their impact. This led both the German and Italian city-state authorities to appoint a “city physician” with responsibilities to provide for the poor, improve public hygiene, and advise politicians during epidemics. While orders from the physicians were often countered by other instances of power, the precedent had been created that medical expertise with a bureaucracy to enforce expert views during epidemics was necessary. That would later be the germ of the idea that medical expertise and medical bureaucracies could play a role in improving public health in periods where there was no epidemic or pandemic.[vii]

There was less evidence of compassion in European colonizing efforts. Plagues made military conquest of large populations easier but also contributed to losses of forced labour. Germs and epidemics alone however cannot be blamed for reducing indigenous populations. In the Americas, where as many as between 20 million and 100 million Indigenous people lived in 1500, only 1.5 million remained in 1650. Starvation and overwork were important causes. Germs could fell a large section of a colonial population without immunities to European-imported diseases but differential rates of rebound of populations post-pandemic demonstrate that blaming only forces of nature and not cruelty of conquerors for decimation of colonial populations is a form of settler apologia.[viii]

Epidemics among conquered peoples helped colonists by robbing them of the numbers and the spirit to resist their oppressors. But the decline in the local forced labour forces meant increased reliance on the European slave trade focused on Africa to provide replacements for the declining Indigenous populations. Colonial masters cared little about epidemics and pandemics when only conquered peoples were dying. And so epidemics of cholera in India were ignored until settler populations and trade were affected.[ix]

Within Europe, efforts to provide clean water supplies and better sanitation for the neighbourhoods of the wealthy only expanded to working-class neighbourhoods in the late 19th century as Pasteur’s germ theory persuaded elites that otherwise they could be contaminated by the filthy waters and air in poor areas that had led to many epidemics of cholera.[x]  Again, elite interests played more of a role than compassion in promoting developments that were of help to working-class families and communities.  The growing support for socialist parties and trade unions among workers resulted in carrot and stick strategies, in any case, on the part of the ruling class. In Bismarck’s Germany the stick included suppression of the Socialist Party and surveillance of trade unions. The carrots included sickness insurance, accident insurance, and old-age and disability insurance for workers along with clean water and better sanitation. In all of this, while some compassion for workers’ interests might have been present, the desire to co-opt workers away from socialism and towards support for notions of a common German nationalism that would legitimize the class system was the larger motivator for elite actions. Class hierarchies were preserved both in Germany and the countries that imitated German reforms in whole or in part.[xi] Another pandemic would reveal the extent of the inequality within those hierarchies.

The Spanish flu of 1918, which killed as many as 100 million people, provoked wealthier nations to expand their public health bureaucracies.[xii] It also contributed to postwar radicalism as workers observed the far greater death rates in their overcrowded quarters where recommended social distancing was impossible even if their lack of savings had not forced them to risk their lives by going out to work.[xiii]

That radicalism would, over time, result in elites agreeing to limited social reforms that collectively would be referred to after World War II as the “welfare state.” By the 1980s some of those reforms were under attack by capitalists who did not fear the working class to the extent that their post-war counterparts did and who used neoliberal ideology to roll back some of the gains that working people had achieved over several decades. So, while most people, particularly in the advanced capitalist societies, have more material goods and more social rights than the masses enjoyed at the time of the Spanish flu, the current pandemic is laying bare the degree to which our social programs remain completely inadequate. Congregate seniors’ homes and homes for the disabled, generally understaffed for-profit corporate ventures, are being revealed as places where vulnerable people are warehoused, not cared for. The homeless and poorly housed make a mockery of calls for social distancing and, as in earlier epidemics and pandemics, the poor are dying disproportionately to the rich. Most Third World countries have no ability to protect their citizens from plague. And even the public hospitals so crucial to treating victims of Covid-19 in wealthy nations struggle with a lack of staffing and equipment thanks to years of neo-liberal austerity measures. Above all, years of growing inequality within and among nations and reduced public financial support measures mean that few people can survive financially without work income for more than a short period.

What might come out of this tragic pandemic to put us on a firmer footing when the inevitable next pandemic arrives? Universal basic incomes, universally accessible medical services, fully public seniors’ homes staffed and equipped like hospitals, guaranteed decent housing for all, and an end to markets in wild animals would all help. But inevitably there will be struggles between the forces of change and the forces of the status quo in the aftermath of Covid-19. The former will have on their side the weaknesses within a capitalist system that has been revealed as having no ability to cope with disasters, whether those are viewed as human-made or natural. The emperor has no clothes but obviously with massive control of the means of communication and education, the question is whether the naked emperor can convince the masses that he is still clothed in a golden robe.

Alvin Finkel is professor emeritus of history at Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada. His latest book is Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


[i] R.S.Bray, Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History (Cambridge, England: James Clarke and Company, 1996), 44.

[ii] The Statute is reprinted in Yale Law School, Avalon Project, Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, , retrieved June 29, 2015. The context of this decree is discussed in A.L. Beier, “ ‘A New Serfdom:’ Labor Laws, Vagrancy Statutes, and Labor Discipline in England, 1350-1800,” in A.L. Beier and Paul Ocobock, eds., Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global and Historical Perspective (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), 38-9.

[iii] E.P. Thompson developed this concept in his classic historical work, The Making of the English Working Class  (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963) and “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, ”Past and Present,  50 (February 1971): 76-136.

[iv] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 , 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003).

[v] Nicholas Terpstra, Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna  (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[vi] Ibid., 3-4.

[vii] Silvia de Renzi, “ Policies of Health: Diseases, Poverty and Hospitals,”  in Peter Elmer, ed., The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe 1500-1800  (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 136-65.

[viii] The standard plague-blaming book for long-term Indigenous population declines is Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1986). Among many works that focus on the murderous brutality of the European conquerors is G. V. Scammell, The World Encompassed: The First European Maritime Empires c. 800-1650 (London: Methuen, 1981).

[ix] Michael Worboys, “Colonial and Imperial Medicine,” in Deborah Brunton, ed., Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1800-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 211-238.

[x] Hilary Marland, “ The Changing Role of the Hospital, 1800-1900” in Deborah Brunton, ed., Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1800-1930  (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 31-60.

[xi]   E.P. Hennock, The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850–1914: Social Policies Compared (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Peter Baldwin, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990).

[xii] Canada’s federal Department of Health, for example, was a response to the Spanish flu. Mark Osborne Humphries, The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 151.

[xiii] In Winnipeg’s working-class north end, the death rate from the Spanish flu was 6.3 per 1000 residents versus 4 per 1000 in the wealthy south end neighbourhoods. Esyllt W. Jones, Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 61.

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3 thoughts on “Plagues and Social Change: Putting Covid-19 in Historical Context

  1. ELK

    Dear Sir,
    Thank you for such a well written and thought provoking essay. I appreciate your perspectives, knowledge and especially, attitude. Thank you, HaiHai, Dunca!

  2. Claudia

    Great historical perspective. This article exposes how much has remained the same for hundreds of years. Very well-written.

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