A slow crawl up from death
The year 1300. The agrarian society of the High Middle Ages was in full swing; the peasant population worked tirelessly, toiling and sweating away on the farms owned by their lords. Merchants, the pioneers of international trade, were becoming more and more commonplace too. They brought the commodities made by weavers, blacksmiths and carpenters to the outside world. In return, riches such as cloth, food, spices and jewellery permeated throughout European markets. The early open European society was flourishing.
But behind this façade of economic growth, population had become a major problem. Since the start of the High Middle Ages, the population had almost doubled, from 38 million to 74 million. Villages were sprouting up anywhere possible to make a scrap of living. The prevailing agricultural capital was becoming overcrowded with able peasants. Overpopulation was making the majority peasant society less productive.
Fast forward to 1346: the Black Death arrives. Merchants returning from China had brought bacterium-infected rats onto their ships. The infection spread at alarming rates, from trade route to trade route, town to town, person to person. Recent estimates put the death toll from the bubonic plague at 60% of Europe’s population at the time.
In the midst of this hysteria, people turned on themselves, exiling and killing those thought to display symptoms of the plague. Doctors refused to see patients; shopkeepers closed their stores; foreigners were being shunned. Peasants were afraid to work on their farmland: their livestock of cattle and chickens had been infected with the plague too. The open European economy was crippled, plummeting to its knees. Instead of having an oversupply of labour, Europe was now ruined by a rapidly shrinking labour market.
Five long years on, the frenzied terror of the Black Death was fading. Those who had survived were enjoying higher wages due to the shortages of labour, making their services more precious. Their lords were buoyed by robust profits from high grain prices, so they were accommodating to the higher wages demanded by their peasants. Even in the midst of the plague, the manorial economic system remained resilient, for now.
Then came the poor crop yields in 1375. Farming revenues fell. Prices for food had increased by up to four times in England. In a society motored by agriculture, higher food prices had inflationary consequences, leading the serfs to demand higher compensation. Lords did not have the wage bills to pay their labourers, so they had to become more innovative to survive. As such, the Statute of Labourers, which was first used to peg wages to pre-plague levels, was amended to be fixed to the price of food in 1389.
Even in the aftermath of the plague, recovery was slow and painful. England had become involved in many bitter wars that put a dampener on economic growth. Ongoing unrest with their neighbours had damaged agricultural capital, as well as more loss of life. France had fared worse though, after being constantly ravaged by England. Paris was utterly deserted heading into the 15th Century. With all this havoc, growth would take years to return to a now weakened and fragile Europe.
Similar to the events of the plague, the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has resulted in thousands of deaths and dreadful economic effects. With poor medical infrastructure in this region, the spread of the disease was rampant. And, without a handle on this, the economy suffered greatly. Labour, a major input in the economy, shrank in size. Thus, the region suffered. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have already forgone over 12% of their combined GDP. The World Bank suggested an economic toll of $6 billion for the continent. Though there has been much change between the 14th century and the present day, we can draw parallels. Regardless of differences in technology, time or geography, when our most precious resource – ourselves – is depleted, economies stagnate. In many cases, it can take years to recover.