The Black Death
When we use the word democracy or worker's rights we don't typically think of the Middle Ages. When we think of liberty and freedom we usually think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or events like the American Revolution (1776-1783 AD). Most of us regard human rights, liberty, freedom, etc. as having sprung from the great democratic reforms of the 18th century. But these reforms might not have been possible without an intellectual revolution in thinking that resulted from the greatest holocaust the West has ever experienced, the Black Death.

In the summer of 1347 a merchant ship returned to the Sicilian port of Messina. The ship brought with it the horrifying disease eventually known as the Black Death. It struck rapidly. Within twenty-four hours of infection came an agonising death. The effect of the Black Death was dramatic. In less than twenty years half the population of Europe was dead leaving the countryside devastated. The plague struck indiscriminately at rich and poor alike. The wealthy fled cities for isolated retreats. The packed and insanitary towns suffered the most. Some towns lost as many as three-quarters of their inhabitants. As the disease spread, there were not enough survivors remaining to bury the dead in the mass graves.

The effects of the plague on country life was unmistakable: without serf-farmers to work the land it went to waste. Livestock died in thousands. Villages were abandoned as wild dogs and bandits scavenged and looted the ruins. In Germany up to 60% of the land remained uncultivated. In Spain conditions in the countryside became so bad that it was dangerous to venture outside the towns.

This was no ordinary epidemic. To those suffering from it it must have seemed like the world was ending. The entire economy was centered on agriculture; and with the death of so many farmers from the plague additional tens of thousands more people starved to death. Year after year the plague ravaged Europe in a dance of death that brought a new image to the art of the time, a prancing, grinning skeleton, dragging its screaming victims to the grave. There was no escape.

It took a hundred years before the memory of the two most devastating decades (1340s and 1350s) of the plague passed; and it took about three centuries for Europe's population to recover to pre-plague levels again. Following this recovery was a new optimism, a feeling of reckless joy at being alive. The survivors became rich because they inherited what the dead had left behind.

But it was the change in the status of labour (workers) that was the most important impact of the plague. The plague killed off half the workforce. Those that remained were desperately needed if enough food and raw materials were to be produced to help Europe recover. The workers suddenly had power and influence they did not have; they were no longer helpless bonded serfs. There were so few of them their value went up; they became a valuable commodity; they commanded a higher price for their work.

All over Europe workers flexed their new-found industrial muscle in ways unthinkable only a generation before. With the general breakdown of authority came heresies. For example, the Lollards in England started preaching an end to the class system and the introduction of egalitarianism; they learned this idea of egalitarianism from Jesus' teachings. The Lollards were burnt at the stake. Even in war the common man suddenly became the equal of the aristocrat, e.g. the introduction of the long bow to warfare meant a cheap archer could kill an expensive knight from a distance of 200 yards. The social order was disintigrating.