Covid And The Black Death


Now that Covid is receding as a threat, and a slow return to some sort of normality is returning, people are beginning to wonder about the medium and long-term future. Mostly, they are worried about their jobs and the economy. The media are full of speculation. I have not read The Guardian recently, but I imagine it to be twisting itself into paroxysms of doomsday prognostications. For the Guardian, Brexit was bad enough, but when this is added to Covid, I imagine that antidepressants must be dispensed free at their office water coolers. So miserable are these Lefties, and so dismal is their output, that sales of The Guardian have dropped to such low levels that they are now exceeded by those of The Spectator. Anyway, things are a little more cheerful at The Daily Telegraph, where an article by Jeremy Warner caught my eye.

Warner draws attention to a much earlier pandemic in the form of Spanish Flu which swept across the world in 1918 and 1919. Worldwide, the numbers thought to have been killed were between 50 and 100 million; which compares with worldwide figures of 700,000 for Covid to date. The UK lost about 0.5% of its population in 1918 and 1919. This compares to about 0.07% for Covid. In statistical terms this is almost unoticeable – especially when Covid mortality is put against the deaths that would have occurred by now in a normal year.

Jeremy Warner draws attention to the aftermath of Spanish Flu, which was an economic boom which became known as ‘The Roaring Twenties’. Very tentatively, and with commendable caveats about the demographics affected, he suggests that the aftermath of Covid may result in a similar economic boom.

History can teach us much about ourselves and the world around us. Covid in 2020 and Spanish Flu in 1919 are not the only times that disastrous diseases have stricken humanity. And yet somehow, we have bounced back, often with changes which have improved our way of life.

Consider, for example, the Black Death. This is a bacterial disease spread in air; and bites from infected fleas and rats. It arrived in Messina in Italy in 1347, on board ships which had travelled from the Black Sea. It then spread rapidly across Europe. The disease is thought to have arrived in Melcombe Regis in Dorset in 1348 and then spread across Britain with the same deadly effect that it had done in Europe. Historians generally reckon that the total human mortality was about 30% – 50% over the whole of Europe. Mortality in Britain is estimated to have been similar, but perhaps a little closer to 30% overall. Parish records which have survived from that time, suggest that mortality rates were very varied according to locality, some villages suffering more casualties than others. All age groups and sexes were vulnerable to the disease, and it still re-occurs today.

The population in Britain in the 14th Century was mostly rural and tied to the lord of the manor by the bonds of the feudal system. Life for nearly everyone in the village revolved around the agricultural life of the manor. The villeins at the bottom of the social heap were not allowed to leave the village, bonded as they were to their feudal overlord. Whilst other strata in the feudal system were more mobile, the villeins remained not quite slaves, but very nearly so. Furthermore, once born a villein, one stayed a villein. Social mobility was almost impossible in the feudal system.

All this changed when the Black Death swept through the population. The lords were left with manors that held agricultural land – but had only a very depleted workforce to till the land. Rural England was in serious economic trouble. The consequence of such a massive shortage was that the price of labour rose dramatically. And labourers (usually the youngest and fittest) departed their manors without the landlord’s consent and went off to work on distant estates where they could gain a monied wage for their services. The feudal system was beginning to break down. As subsequent waves of plague hit the country, this further weakened the bonds which had held the lower strata of society in their place. By the early 1400s, feudalism in England had declined to insignificance.

A number of changes took place which accelerated the demise of feudalism and increased income for everyone. The lack of labour to work the fields drove a transition to a more livestock-based agriculture. Sheep, which were already increasing in numbers throughout the 12th and 13th Centuries, were increasing as the export market for English and Welsh wool burgeoned. The sheer physical hard work needed to till the fields for arable crops was reduced by the increase in livestock. Livestock can be controlled by fields bounded by hedges, requiring less labour to supervise it. This drove the enclosure of the medieval open field system into the closed fields that we see today. The labour required per acre was reduced and productivity increased at the same time as wages and demand for labour increased.

Occupation of the land shifted from being farmed directly by the landlord, using the unpaid labour of the villeins, into proper tenancies. The tenancies were in exchange for monied rents and and so began the rise of the yeoman farmer. These farmers usually employed several people; and he did so by paying wages and not with forms of feudal bondage. The flows of money were increased, from the bottom stratas of society, who were now wage earners, to the aristocracy who became non-working landlords. The whole of society shifted up a gear in economic terms.

The influences upon social change in England did not occur in the same way in continental Europe. This is despite the ravages of the Black Death being of the same order of magnitude on the continent as it was in England.

Feudalism had first developed in Germany, the Low Countries and France some time in the 9th Century and arrived in England with the Norman Conquest in 1066. Whilst it declined in England from 1348, it continued in France until the French Revolution in 1789. Feudalism ended in Germany at about the same time, and in Russia about 100 years later. Overall, in Europe, feudalism lasted for nearly a thousand years, at least in rural areas. The towns and cities were different because the urban economy was not tied to the demands of managing the land.

Nevertheless, the differences between England, where feudalism lasted about 400 years, and Europe where it lasted nearly 1000 years, resulted in two populations with very different outlooks on social and political affairs. The independent-mindedness of the Anglo-Saxons had never completely disappeared under Norman rule. The breakdown of the feudal system in England was perhaps not just a result of population and economic exigencies, but also the sheer curmudgeonly bloody-mindedness of the Anglo-Saxon underclass, who had never really accepted the authoritarian diktats of their overlords. Servile obeisance to power has never been a dominating feature of the English. Those Englishmen who have demonstrated servility in order to further their own careers have usually been considered with contempt by their fellows.

A further curious feature of this massive social and political change was that it came from the bottom layers of society in the face of fierce opposition from the élites at the top. The bottom drove the top in a direction that it it did not want to go, but everyone benefited from it. There are lessons here for modern politicians, should they wish to learn them.

When drawing parallels from history, we should be careful about noting the differences as well as the similarities. We should also be careful when attempting to predict the future based upon apparent historical precedent; and especially when the ‘history’ of rapidly changing events is still happening around us. Nevertheless, it is important to observe things as they are happening, and at least have a go at deciding upon the direction of travel.

The Black Death wiped out 30% of the population, Spanish Flu killed 0.5% and Covid has killed 0.07%. The Black Death killed all sectors of the population, regardless of age or sex. Spanish Flu killed mostly younger men of working age. Both of these severely reduced the working population and thereby set in train an increase in wages for the bottom end of the social spectrum. On the other hand, not only has Covid killed a very tiny percentage, but those it has actually killed (allowing for Public Health England’s fiddling of the figures) have been mostly elderly and those who are well beyond working age. There seems to be little here to stimulate an immediate rise in wages and a subsequent economic boom.

The economic effects are therefore unlikely to be equated directly with a reduction in the workforce. Instead, the driver of any economic effects of Covid will not be mortality, but the political response to the disease in the form of lockdown, social distancing, furlough, and the enforced wearing of masks.

One of the notable features of lockdown was that people classified as “essential workers” were excluded from the regulations. These were not just NHS and care workers, but all sorts of occupations such as truck drivers, public transport drivers, utility workers and all those associated with power and water maintenance, post office workers, delivery drivers, food and supermarket shop workers, dustmen, and many others.

Notice that these people, with the exception of doctors and nurses, are generally considered to be ‘working class’. These are the people who, in a medieval feudal system, would have been at or close to the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are still regarded as such by those who consider themselves to be higher in the social pyramid. And yet these are the ones who have had to continue working in order to keep the country functioning. This should tell us a lot about who is actually the most important class of society.

In many cases, the fact that schools have been closed has meant that women in these essential occupations have been prevented from working because of childcare considerations. They have been unable to work in their usual occupation, often part-time, because they have had to look after children. Lockdown took out a whole demographic which could probably have kept working despite the other constraints. Many families have had to adapt because of this.

This leaves the rest of us to be implicitly labelled as ‘non-essential’ and who have had to be locked down and furloughed (if we were so lucky). Mostly, this category will be the office workers of various stripes. Many of these will have learnt to work from home and communicate with their colleagues via Skype or Zoom. Suddenly, the corporate world has learnt that they do not need to house office workers in vast, expensive buildings. There will be a drive to keep these workers at home, because they will not require the huge backup of an office block, transport, food, coffee machines, canteens, water coolers, secretaries, receptionists, security and so on. The office workers themselves will not need to pay for their daily commute and their sandwiches en-route. Salaries for these people will most likely fall. And the ancillary contribution to the economy provided by the people who service these office workers (who will now spend most of their time at home) will be lost. A good assessment of the kind of changes that are on their way is provided by Allister Heath here.

Another group of people who are currently furloughed, but who are even now becoming redundant, are those who are now deemed non-essential by their employers in the private sector. These might people who have occupations in sales or marketing perhaps. There will be no need to maintain an office manager or a stationary cupboard. The IT department can be reduced. HR departments may find themselves at risk. Many of this type of worker will find themselves unemployed. In the short and medium term there is a whole category of office workers, and those who service them, who are non-essential.

Covid has sharpened the minds of corporate Britain. If my guesses are anywhere close to being correct, the cost of office space in prime locations will drop.

That is the upside for individual companies. The downside for the national economy is that unemployment will go up as big chunks of the middle-ranking social sectors lose their jobs. UK GDP will also drop as income drops. GDP starts with consumer spending – and as this reduces, then so too will GDP.

The public sector may well think that it is insulated from this coming wave of unemployment, at least for a while. However, I suspect that pressure will grow to undertake similar savings, not least because people’s incomes will most likely drop and therefore tax income will also have to drop. Local government will be the first to feel the squeeze and will have to revert to provide services which people actually need, rather than ‘services’ which are utterly useless. There are also many NGOs, local and national, which suck the teat of the taxpayer. The time has come for them to be weaned.

Covid has almost certainly exposed some of the inefficiencies in the UK economy. Perhaps here lies the answer to the economists’ constant cry that British productivity is low compared to other countries. There is a huge amount of back-office waste that can be culled.

But this may have a silver lining. There is a skills shortage in the UK of engineers, craftsmen, artisans, tradesmen and the like. This is why we have had to import so much of this kind of labour from other countries. We will shortly be having large numbers of people coming onto the jobs market, who have spent most of their careers sitting in front of computer screens and actually producing very little of real use. With extensive retraining, these people could be diverted into more productive occupations. There may be difficulties with some people having to re-learn to use their hands for things other than typing on a keyboard, but manual skills can be taught to most people.

There are also problems with universities who have provided far too many ‘soft’ degrees which are useless in a more productive world. Australia is showing us the way by increasing grants for university courses in favour of STEM subjects and reducing them for things like ‘Diversity Studies’. I suspect some UK universities will go to the wall as students begin to question the need to lose three or four years of their lives, gain a degree in a soft humanities subject, an enormous student debt and a job in a dismal office which pays a lower wage than an electrician or plumber. Many universities will have to revert to the technical colleges they once were and, once again, teach skills rather than opinions.

The Black Death, the Hundred Years War and the need to finance it, gave stimulus to poll tax riots and a peasants’ revolt in 1381 led by Wat Tyler. All these things brought about the gradual end of the feudal system over the course of the fifty to seventy years after 1348. The changes were immense and long lasting. In England, these social, economic and political changes drove subsequent events; which in many ways have separated us from those prevailing in continental Europe. They provided the seed-bed from which the modern Anglosphere of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States has grown.

Many would argue that those differences and outcomes of the Anglosphere arose much earlier – in 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta by King John. And that is perfectly true to some extent. It provided the first legal expression of bringing the state into equality with the ordinary man. But the Magna Carta was signed by John under duress from rebellious barons. By contrast, the Black Death and the decline and fall of feudalism brought about rapid and lasting changes – and the stimulus was made from the bottom of society. In very broad terms, the villeins and serfs simply walked away from feudalism.

It took many decades from 1348, for the feudal system to decline to almost nothing. Even in our fast-moving modern world, it may well take at least a decade for the effects of Covid to shake out. My guess is that the responses to it will once again mark fundamental differences in attitude and risk between the Brits and the Europeans. Another guess is that the UK will come out of it rather better than our neighbours.

But the source of the changes will come from those living and working in the productive part of the economy – towards the bottom of the social heap. It will not come from the government, the universities or the civil service élites.

David Eyles spent the first twenty years of his career as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. He started work on the Thames Barrier Project in the mid 1970s and from there moved on to building hardened aircraft shelters in East Anglia – those being the days of a rather warm Cold War. On RAF Lakenheath, he was once observed nearly slithering his mini under the wheels of a taxiing F111 loaded up with tactical nuclear weapons. If nothing else, it would have been one helluva motor insurance claim and a sense of humour loss by the US Air Force. Later, he went to Nigeria for two years to build roads and see first hand what corruption can do to bring down an intrinsically prosperous country. There he had his first experience of seeing British overseas aid being wasted. He returned to the UK and attempted to write a novel, but was instead diverted into bird ringing and spent far too many nights chasing radio tagged Nightjars around Wareham Forest at dangerously high speed. By a mysterious route, David then fell into farming via six worn out commercial hens; and wound up with a flock of 350 Dorset Down ewes and forty Traditional Hereford cattle. He then divorced, changed his life again and arrived in Cornwall to find solace in the pedantry of hard data, wonderful pubs, good people and writing. His other interests include walking; some very poor quality photography; the philosophy of consciousness as it pertains to animals and humans; and a certain amount of politics. David’s writing can be found here

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