What history can teach us about building a fairer society after the coronavirus pandemic

What history can teach us about building a fairer society after the coronavirus pandemic

Richard Power Sayeed writes:

In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population, hastening the breakdown of rigid social hierarchies – what we now call “feudalism” – to an astonishing degree. But there was nothing inevitable about that transformation. It happened because people such as William Caburn exploited the crisis.

Two years after the plague hit England, this Lincolnshire ploughman was in court for “refusing to work at the daily rate”. He had no legal right to do so, but leveraging the fact that landlords didn’t have enough workers to cultivate the land, he bartered for higher wages.

It wasn’t just wages – peasants also collectively bargained for lower rents. We see in the accounts of one landlord how, in the several villages dotted across his Warwickshire estate, most tenants suddenly went into arrears at the same time. Almost certainly they were secretly communicating and cooperating.

Local protests and uprisings against landlords had happened before, but after the Black Death they became more common. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the biggest, but it was an overreach and was defeated. The ruling aristocracy resisted the peasants’ demands from the outset. Brutal new laws tried to stop labourers asking for better pay, and even specified what kind of fabrics people of different classes could wear.

But the peasants’ movement survived; in fact, it thrived. Some landlords cut their rents by more than half between 1350 and 1400. In the same period, wages for agricultural workers rose by around 50% for men and 100% for women. And by the turn of the century, almost all rents in England were paid in cash, rather than feudal services, reflecting how many former serfs had bought their freedom.

But over the next five centuries, a minority of freed peasants enclosed common farming land and made it their private property, so that most of the labouring classes were forced into cramped city slums and dangerous jobs. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the anger this engendered was radicalised, first by the failures of Europe’s ruling classes in the first world war, and then by another plague: the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed tens of millions.

Across many of the countries affected by the pandemic, militants and reformers demanded change, and governments improvised public health innovations. The eventual result was the first phase of welfare state construction across the world, which climaxed with the Swedish social democrats’ ambitious reforms of the 1930s. These provided housing, childcare, child benefits, pensions and other social security. Once again, political organising in response to a pandemic had enabled enormous change. [Continue reading…]

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