These causes and effects were drilled into diligent students during AP European History. But like most things taught to us in high school, they are a massive oversimplification, particularly on two points: whether these changes would have come about without the Black Death, and whether the pandemic was a price worth paying to achieve them.
Take the talking point about wages: We know that agricultural laborers for the bishop of Winchester in England were taking home daily wages of about 5.12 denarii — the Latin term for English silver pennies worth 1/240 of a pound sterling — on average when the Black Death first reached the kingdom in 1348. By the late 15th century, this had risen to 7.22 denarii.
But we can’t say for certain that this improvement happened because a smaller workforce was able to negotiate for higher pay. It may be that those left alive were suddenly working more land, given that there were fewer people to do so. That’s not a raise; that’s another shift.
And wages didn’t keep increasing. The Winchester laborers were making the same 7.22 denarii per day from about 1380 through 1479. It’s not exactly an ongoing success story about the triumph of the common man.
Meanwhile, the exhortation to take heart from the idea that the Renaissance followed the Black Death is yet more dubious. As I always tell my students, the Renaissance was something that happened to rich people. The fact that a few outrageously wealthy individuals in Florence could buy a nice painting had absolutely nothing to do with the lives of the masses. The agricultural laborers making a few more coins a day would never see a Leonardo da Vinci sketch, much less a finished work.
And just because a few affluent people were commissioning great art doesn’t mean that life was any better as a whole. Even in celebrated Florence, as historian Ada Palmer notes a precipitous drop in life expectancy in Florence during the Renaissance period. Florentine Captain General Ercole Bentivoglio urged Machiavelli to write on the difficulties of the era, saying,“Without a good history of these times, future generations will never believe how bad it was.”
And beyond these examples, the urge to point to increased wages or Renaissance art as the silver lining of the Black Death collapses time. The plague reached Europe in 1347. Even if those who were lucky enough to survive the pandemic were also born rich, they were not the people enjoying Michelangelo’s sculptures a century later. Nor would the jump in agricultural wages 30 years after the pandemic serve as recompense for the peasants who suffered through it. If we are using these narratives to give ourselves hope, we should be clear about what we’re telling ourselves: Our current suffering might result in something better in the next century, not right after we emerge from lockdown.
As a discipline, history attempts not just to commemorate but also to make sense of past events. I always joke that the reason I study medieval history is that we are still too emotionally invested in anything more modern to analyze it. We write off the suffering of medieval people during the Black Death and point to the advantages it gives us now because it happened 700 years ago. If medieval people had to die so that we can look at Renaissance-era prints, it is an abstract concept rather than a painful calculation that has an immediate effect on us.
We all want something to look forward to as we watch our own society suffer, but there isn’t a way to historicize ourselves out of this situation. We simply have to live it while knowing that our lives might not improve as a result. The one honest insight we can take away from Black Death discourse is that humans have come through worse than this and kept going.