I probably don’t need to enumerate the many illnesses that are wreaking havoc worldwide at the moment, some with more traditionally plague-like features than others. I have followed with great distress the spread of the Ebola virus through west Africa and now to Europe and the United States, but have also been for sometime concerned with dangerous diseases long in our midst, notably HIV/AIDS. Please know this post isn’t intended to make something abstract and/or lighthearted of a very serious situation; I just thought since the topics are both current you might find it interesting. Without further ado, let’s keep this medieval ball rolling.
So I’d like to divide this post into three impacts the Black Plague (a.k.a: “black death”, “great plague”, “bubonic plague”) had on medieval Europe. The first point will consider how containment measures impacted property law. The second will consider how the changes in population and psyche inflicted by the plague changed labor and wages. The third will consider how the Church’s welfare regime comported with the effects of the plague.
1.) Containment Measures & Property Law
A common misunderstanding of the medieval response to the plague is that the medievals had only one misinformed theory of disease; in reality there were a variety of theories of disease floating around, one of which was more or less Galen’s theory of humors, while others tracked with different senses of ‘bad air’, ‘miasma’, ‘filth’ and so on. As you can see, attributing the source of disease to ‘bad air’ or ‘miasma’ isn’t quite right, but it isn’t totally demented, and it heavily impacted medieval plague containment protocols. If you’re a Foucault fan, you’re already aware of the ‘plague town’ of late 17th century protocol, the kind he associated with the unflinching gaze of the panopticon. Where the premodern response to leprosy produced an us-versus-them simple division, Foucault argues, the plague produced infinite segmentation. Each person was watched. Individual windows were shuttered, individual homes searched, individual pieces of property burned. This early modern plague protocol had medieval precedent in the earliest quarantines, which popped up in the sea ports of the Adriatic in the 14th century. Venetians set up 40-day quarantines for ships suspected of carrying plague infested crews or cargo, and since those, y’know, worked, Northern Italy went sort of hog wild with public health systems:
“Between 1348 and the 1500s — at least in Northern Italian cities — the idea of a plague as a contagion gained great force, and if governments were not yet ready to deny that plague was God’s visitation, in practice they took more and more measures designed to combat the spread of infections. Remarkable and intrusive systems of public health developed, which in turn gave rise to basic questions about the limitations of state authority exercised in the name of public good.”
So writes J. N. Hays in The Burdens of Disease. Now, the public health laws enacted in Northern Italian cities pertained in large part to the movement of bodies; they told you where you could go and when, based on the likelihood that you were infected. But as Foucault’s plague town intimates, there were also massive incursions into property: ships’ cargo could be detained or burned; the possessions of suspected plague-havers were equally endangered. It appears Milan avoided a major outbreak using these methods, which to be fair are panicky and draconian, but represent at least a glimmer of fascinating medieval intuition: your property rights are not even approaching similarity to your bodily rights and/or the right of others to life. This is contra, say, the Lockean impulse, which tries to equate property with body by suggesting a metaphysical admixture of person and property via labor-mixing, therefore extending the rights of the person’s body over the things they own. Not on your life, say the medievals. And, indeed, proprietary contracts mostly languished during plague outbreaks:
“Modern historical studies [of Northern Italian city states] all suggest that after a few months political and legal machinery once again functioned, and that in least some cases city governments tried to assist their populations in coping with the disaster. In Perpignan the persistence of will-making even at the height of the epidemic was impressive; a will written by professionals, with witnesses, was a “fairly sophisticated document, reflecting a rather high level of social organization” that did not break down in panic. When the worst months passed, legal documents reappeared in full flower, and their character reflects a community rebuilding itself: there were again estate settlements, disputes among heirs, restoration of dowries, and apprenticeship contracts as new workers were recruited to fill the gaps in trade.”
That the highly technical craft of will-writing persevered even through the height of the plague tells us a couple of things: first, that the revocation of property rights in quarantine procedure wasn’t a function of complete societal breakdown — that is, it wasn’t a symptom of the disintegration of moral order that permitted all kinds of wild abuse — but rather that it was just part of a set of procedures whose implementation by the state was deemed morally fitting for the most part given the circumstances. This also means the quarantine protocols weren’t a symptom of the seizure of power by tyrants among panic. But it also informs us that most formal proprietary arrangements appear to have become swiftly second-order, with only wills surviving — which makes sense when lots of people are dying and hoping to pass on information about their families and properties. But other functions of property appear to have been given relatively short shrift by the state during this period, and were then revived post-disaster. Medievals could prioritize certain functions of property, that is, given the circumstances; this reflects their general sense that property was for something, not just an empty category of rights.
I would also hope the long, storied history of quarantines would cool the panic of some panicky conspiracy theorists who see abject tyranny in all public health measures. They’re not alone in their concerns, as the murmuring of some Italian jurists mentioned above indicates; but the plague protocols didn’t transform in their time to long-term domination, and I doubt ours will, either. And anyway if you take Foucault seriously, the plague protocols are already here, anyway.
2.) How the plague changed labor law and wages.
If you were a peasant and you made it through the various rounds of plague, you likely hit some paydirt. Tierney, Medieval Poor Law:
“The most immediate and obvious effect of the plague was to create an unprecedented shortage of labor. Workmen demanded higher wages and villeins clamored to be free of their customary services so that they could take advantage of the favorable labor market. Landlords resisted these demands and governments sought to outlaw them with repressive legislation. This in turn contributed to a growing bitterness between the classes which produced serious peasant rebellions in England and elsewhere in the 1380s.”
Come see the violence inherent in the system, etc. Heh, and the rich folk were bastards about it, too. Tierney goes on:
“The first reaction to the Black Death was the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349. Its main purpose was to prevent laborers wandering away from their work to seek higher wages, and, to render this provision effective, it forbade the giving of alms to able-bodied beggars under pain of imprisonment ‘so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.’”
Hooboy. From Mark Senn’s article, “English Life and Law in the Time of the Black Death”:
“These laws required people who were under the age of sixty who were able to work (with a few exceptions) to do so and to do so at their 1346 wage levels in the places they worked before the plague. These laws also prohibited employers from paying wages at higher levels and vendors from selling their goods at higher than 1346 prices.”
Uh huh. The sum of all this is a sort of enlightenment that came with the dark times. As Senn goes on,
“The importance of the laws that stabilized wages and prices is not only in their recognition of a crisis and their effort to address it. These laws implicitly acknowledged that the feudal bargain had vanished. They did not appeal to the personal bonds of loyalty and protection, but rather, they appealed to simple impersonal checks on monetary exchanges. A law based on status was ceding ground to one based on economics and the bargaining positions supply and demand offer.”
It does not surprise me that a natural disaster that so clearly demonstrated the substantive sameness of the classes (the body and its susceptibility to illness) resulted in a great deal of resentment over the artificial differences (class and status.) The state, acting to protect its wealthy, enacted a bunch of garbage laws, which the people rebelled against. Lesson: rebel, dudes, now is the time!
3.) Effect upon the Church and her welfare regime.
Sometimes you’ll read that the Church’s welfare system ‘fell apart’, resulting in the needs for comparatively brutal ‘poor laws.’ But it wasn’t that the system was just inadequate and broke down. Rather, the structure of the Church was especially vulnerable to the Black Death itself. Both Senn and Robert Palmer (English Law in the Age of the Black Death) note that mortality rates were higher among clergy than laity; Helen Cam writes in England Before Elizabeth that 17,500 priests, monks, nuns, and friars existed in a population of 3 million in 1300, while only 8,000 remained in a population of 2 million after the plague had run its course. Why?
Because, God bless them, the clergy tried to care for the sick.
With numbers vastly reduced, the clergy, which had beforehand administrated a very sophisticated network of assistance, was replaced with young, unschooled agents with far less proficiency. Tierney notes this led to an overall reduction in the efficacy of the medieval assistance regime at least for a time.
Unsurprisingly the role of the religious in the care of the sick is still a matter of contention. Recall this Slate piece, wherein an avowed atheist wonders at the oversight, capacity, and ethics of missionaries working with Ebola patients. His concern about the oversight issue is especially poignant (though, it’s not clear, as he submits, who would replace the missionaries and religious workers if they were to suddenly pull out) given that, as in the black death, religious workers have in this wave of Ebola suffered: a priest passed on after returning to Spain from Sierra Leone — after his repatriation he passed the virus on to a nurse; Texas’ own Kent Brantly was doing Christian mission work when he was infected. It’s heartening to see that, even after all these many centuries, Christianity is still a religion of suffering-with. On the other hand, we are trying to prevent outbreaks here, so some coordination of efforts and tempering of love with prudence probably isn’t a bad idea.
Not that I’m fit to formulate such a schema, and the medieval period can’t tell us much more about one than what not to do. What it can do is tell us that our concerns are not new, which will hopefully provide some cold comfort for those who find themselves increasingly panicked by this state of affairs.
As Sir Walter Scott wrote: “Come he slow, or come he fast/It is but death who comes at last.” Even the great medieval cities whose plague containment procedures spared them from the worst of it are all dust now. We remember the best of them, and let’s try in these very upsetting times to make ourselves memorable for good reasons: for our empathy, our tenderness toward the ill, our willingness to help, our refusal to stigmatize the sick or the survivors, our calm and our faith.
Alternatively, a peasant rebellion also sounds sort of cool.