The Great Mortality and the New Economy


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

The Great Mortality caused economic change and was responsible for the disappearance of a large portion of the productive workforce. People who had not typically been members of that workforce now joined it. While women had always been contributors to the medieval economy in a limited capacity, many of them now stepped up and became full-fledged members of various occupations and trades.

A peasant girl sitting near the fireplace.
The plague speeded up the entrance of women into the economy. (Image: Anneka/Shutterstock)

Women Got a Larger Role in the Economy

If your husband had been, for example, an apothecary, then as his wife, you’d probably assisted with making up the mixtures that were your stock-in-trade. If he died of the plague, then you most likely would just step up and take over so that you could keep feeding your family. 

This pattern played out in lots of professions and trades, and the incorporation of more women into a workforce that was desperately in need of more laborers had another side effect—women did not have as many children as they had in the past. In part, this was because they were often working jobs they wouldn’t have previously. 

And with the increase of disposable income and a more upscale, comfortable lifestyle, many women also seem to have opted not to have children so that they could enjoy the benefits and enhanced quality of life brought on by this unexpected wealth and to keep from having to spend this money on some extra offspring. 

This, in turn, kept birth rates so low that the demographic rebound was not happening as quickly as people might have hoped. And with there being another plague outbreak every decade or so for the next 200 years, this meant that the population would take centuries to recover.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Merchant Class

Part of what the plague did was speed the rise of the already up-and-coming merchant class. To be sure, this group was already somewhat complicating the ideal of the Three Estates model before the Black Death came on the scene. The Orders of nobles, clergy, and everyone else had remained entrenched quite easily when the medieval world was a primarily agrarian society.

But by the 14th century, with trade networks and a cash economy coming into its own, the merchants were only rather tentatively able to be contained within the everyone else category of the Three Estates. With the arrival of the plague, they suddenly had more money than they knew what to do with.

Learn more about the plague’s first sustained appearance in Europe.

The Practice of Primogeniture

Last Will and Testament document with quill pen and handwriting.
The primary reason for the system of primogeniture to come into common use was to ensure the next generation could also benefit from the deceased’s wealth. (Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

By the 14th century, most families throughout the medieval world were practicing primogeniture. They had figured out that if you divide property and wealth equally among heirs, you quickly dilute the inheritance, and within a couple of generations, what once might have been a large estate that produced an income that could support a whole family had instead become a small plot of land from which your descendants could barely scratch out a subsistence living. 

So fairly early on, the system of primogeniture came into common use; whereby the eldest son inherited pretty much everything. Second, sons and daughters had to marry well or else join a religious order, and even doing that usually cost a substantial amount of money—a gift that the family made to the monastery or convent when they accepted the child into its ranks. 

This pattern too underwent a change in the aftermath of the Great Mortality.

Learn more about the end of the plague’s first wave.

The Great Mortality and the Church

Generally speaking, a whole lot of wealth started to get concentrated with just a few people. If you were lucky enough to survive the first wave, you were probably the inheritor of all kinds of money and property from your various relatives who had passed away. 

Those who recognized what was happening took steps to draw up their wills in record numbers, and in those wills, many people left significant goods and monies to the Church either as an act of thanks or piety or perhaps in the hope that this good deed might speed their way into heaven.

So the Church became increasingly wealthy, as did many other individuals who suddenly had large amounts of disposable income. This changed life dramatically for almost everyone, and it tended to change it for the better. 

In the aftermath of the plague, the ranks of the clergy opened their doors to people farther down the social order, a fact that dramatically changed the nature and character of the medieval Church. The Church could do this, in part, because it was now less dependent upon the donations—or dowries—that such admittance usually brought with it because the Church itself became a concentrated site of wealth in the face of so many deaths and bequests.

So, after the plague, everyone who survived was pretty much better off than they had been before—with one exception. The nobles found their lives transformed, just like everyone else, and not necessarily in a good way. They felt threatened by the socioeconomic shifts taking place and sought to do whatever they could to maintain the status quo—sumptuary laws are just one example of that. In order to effect laws that would maintain their power and position, the nobility needed to enter the realm of the political, which is where many of these concerns—and the shape of the new society that arose from the ashes of the Black Death—would be determined.

Common Questions about the Great Mortality and the New Economy

Q: Why did women join the workforce after the Great Mortality in Europe?

Many people had passed away due to the Great Mortality in Europe, so there was a desperate need of more laborers. The women, therefore, joined the workforce.

Q: How did women’s lives change after the Great Mortality?

The Great Mortality caused economic change, in turn making women join the workforce. With the increase of disposable income and a more upscale, comfortable lifestyle, many women also seem to have opted not to have children.

Q: How did the Great Mortality change the nature and character of the medieval Church?

In the aftermath of the Great Mortality, the ranks of the clergy opened their doors to people farther down the social order, a fact that dramatically changed the nature and character of the medieval Church.

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