This is worth killing half the population for

Prof Tombs, speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival in Wiltshire, said: “Terrible though it is to say, the Black Death actually had some rather good effects. This was a good time to be alive.
“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”
Explaining why the century afterwards could be seen as a good time to live, Prof Tombs said: “The population was getting too great, becoming a strain on resources in agricultural society.
“And after the Black Death, things started to look up. People got better off. There was more land to go around. Resources were not so stretched. What was later called the feudal system largely disappeared.
“Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, ‘Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.
“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.
“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

I don’t say that I actually agree with his numbers. But the invention of the pub is indeed worth the slaughter of half the population through pestilence, of course it is.

I’ve long disagreed with this standard view that working hours increased at the time of the industrial revolution though. Entirely agreed that the plague made the survivors richer. But when I look in detail at the working hours claimed it’s the hours spent working for the Lord which are measured. Essentially, what people were doing in the monetary economy. And that just ain’t the total workload. There’s their own work upon their own lands, then there’s all the household work as well. For example, the standard story (Juliet Schorr) says that the peasants got 70 days holiday a year. Sure, there were 70 holy days, but animal owning peasants don’t get 70 days holiday, not from the care of their animals.

So, willing to believe that 1360s etc saw a substantial rise in living standards, some of which would be taken as increased leisure time, but not that leisure equalled that of the 1960s. Not once household production hours were added in.

33 thoughts on “This is worth killing half the population for”

  1. Wasn’t it the Black Death which brought about the switch from French to Anglo-Saxon among the priesthood and aristocracy, as a big chunk of the minority French-speakers were replaced by Anglos? That, I feel, was worth it.

  2. It is about as sensible as saying that if all your family died of food poisoning think of how much more room you would have in your house and all the reduced bills.

    Mention it at the funerals.

  3. Interestingly there was a significant and unpleasant inflation during the Elizabethan period. Or thereabouts. Can’t remember when exactly. Somewhere around there.

  4. Agree with X
    Towns and cities proportionately harder hit than country, so fewer mouths to feed means less demand for agricultural labour. (To turn the prof’s argument on its head.)

    Maybe some compensating gain from taking some marginal land out of cultivation. But most gains from better yoking of draught animals, sheep breeding, coppicing and charcoal making, etc., etc.

    Stuff that’s got bugger all to do with the plague and population, in other words.

  5. Also worth noting is that it was before the Puritans arrived and started banning beer and football.

  6. “Stuff that’s got bugger all to do with the plague and population, in other words.”

    Lovely, lovely technology. Modern day back-to-the-land puritans might like to remember that.

  7. It’s worth noting come to think of it that every improvement in the economic conditions of the poor ignites a surge of puritans trying to ban the things they can now afford (like beer and football).

  8. Thousands of rural pubs are going out of business, because there’s insufficient density of population within easy reach of them.

    Perhaps the prof could explain how killing off half the clientele can help with the economics of pubs.

  9. “This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer…”

    Depends what you mean by English pub. Such places have been around for centuries before then, unless it refers to the differentiation between private and public house? A quick search will throw up at least half a dozen places older than the plague years. E.G. The Royal Standard of England is apparently referenced in the Domesday book.

  10. Thousands of rural pubs are going out of business, because there’s insufficient density of population within easy reach of them.

    Perhaps the prof could explain how killing off half the clientele can help with the economics of pubs.

    We don’t need to kill off half the population to fix that. 650 should suffice.

  11. Ian, there was a growth in inflation from about 1520 due to an influx of gold and silver from south America.

  12. “It’s worth noting come to think of it that every improvement in the economic conditions of the poor ignites a surge of puritans trying to ban the things they can now afford (like beer and football).”

    But only for the best and purest of motives though, to save the people from themselves.

  13. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    The effect in England of the Black death was in stark contrast with much of the Continent.

    Instead of there being a weakening of feudalism, there was in fact an entrenchment. The landlords/junkers sweated their assets even more.
    The Peasants Revolt of 1381 was in fact “C/D Skilled Working Class and Lower Middle Class Professionals Revolt”

    the German Peasants War in the 1500s was a result of radicalisation partly through Lutheranism of a truly oppressed peasant class and an attempt by nobles to free themselves from the Emperor.

  14. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Inflation in England in Tudor times was largely caused by debasement of the coinage by Henry VIII. Henry VII had balanced the Royal books by extorting money from the nobility.
    The only gold and silver from the new World that went into English coffers was that pinched by Mad Frankie Drake and his mates.

    The anti-Malthus argument is that populations grow to meet the resources available. Famines are not caused by over-population, but by natural disaster, crop failure or governmental stupidity. If a population outgrows its food source, then part of the population will usually go elsewhere.

    The Black Death came at a time of catastrophic climate change: it became colder, wetter and harvests kept on diminishing. The plague did for an already hungry and weakened population. The population did not in fact recover until into the 18thCent. when improvements to agricultural production and a more benign climate allowed for greater food production with fewer workers ( thus contributing to the migrations to the cities).

  15. So Much for Subtlety

    Why is it, when dealing with Greens, I always get the feeling that they would like to kill off half the population?

    I am not sure it is a good sign when they praise the results of such policies.

  16. So Much for Subtlety

    Bloke no Longer in Austria – “The only gold and silver from the new World that went into English coffers was that pinched by Mad Frankie Drake and his mates.”

    But with the gold standard, it doesn’t matter. Even with the gold and silver standard. Once inflationary silver flows into what is more or less one market, inflation will follow. One of the big victims of American silver was the Ottoman Empire.

    “If a population outgrows its food source, then part of the population will usually go elsewhere.”

    Or more commonly, their children will die. As Adam Smith noted about Scotland. Urban populations rarely reproduced themselves. We have Upper class rural families that can trace their line back to the Norman Invasion but I doubt we have had many urban ones that could. Until the 19th century perhaps.

  17. Turns out that in order to generate more grants from the government of the day, disaster charities during the plague had changed the definition of ‘death’ to include ‘feeling a bit under the weather’ instantly increasing the number of dead and causing contemporary lefties to go into squawking paroxysms of indignation at the injustice of a callous government prepared to let dead people roam the streets and give all the indications of being fine whilst in reality being dead under the new definition.

  18. “We have Upper class rural families that can trace their line back to the Norman Invasion”: most unlikely. Auberon Waugh offered a prize to anyone who could demonstrate descent from anyone who came over with the Conqueror: it went unclaimed.

  19. I’ve seen a serious scholar argue that the peasantry in N Italy in the Dark Ages was better off than under the Roman Empire. Setting aside the question of how to distinguish the skeletons of peasants from those of slaves, suppose he’s right. That too is likely to be a consequence of population collapse, isn’t it? The marginal land drops out of cultivation; the remaining farmers on the best land prosper.

  20. Anyone who has actually lived among peasants seems to think that they spend all of their waking hours working. The average peasant has no leisure to enjoy. So I regard the good prof’s ideas with a huge amount of scepticism.

  21. Dearieme

    “most unlikely. Auberon Waugh offered a prize to anyone who could demonstrate descent from anyone who came over with the Conqueror: it went unclaimed.”

    Could you provide more details/a citation?

    There are a whole bunch of people descended from the Bastard himself, can’t see why nobody should be descended from his fellow-travellers. Or do you mean just through the male line?

  22. Hadn’t noticed the feudal revolution was in place in the fourteenth century – by that point the standard current adaptation of Marxist history (which is more useful than Marxist politics, so has a strictly limited applicability…) has the wonderful idea of bastard feudalism in place.

    I agree with Tim on the living standards though. The sources almost invariably focus on the hours owed (because that was what interested the writers, who were mostly concerned with recording obligations and rights) and not on the hours worked by the peasants on their own land (leased or owned). As anyone who grows vegtables will tell you, that is a lot of time. And as most sheep herds still had shepherds (24 hours a day job) and as you were liable if your cattle strayed and as game was still hunted by the consumer (forest law might have limited where people could hunt, but it did not apply everywhere, and undeveloped common still exists in most areas…) there was a lot to do.

    The life of a peasant in 1420 (if he avoided marauding civil warriors, French, Welsh, Scots and pirates in general…) might if he was rich have been better than a nineteenth-century factory worker, but that would be because the right comparision was with the people who did the work for the rich peasant. The yeomen farmers of the nineteenth century were also an evolution of the peasantry after all.

  23. “There are a whole bunch of people descended from the Bastard himself, can’t see why nobody should be descended from his fellow-travellers.” There must be huge numbers descended from his mob; perhaps even thee and me. The point is whether it can be demonstrated for any particular case.

    The A.W. offer of reward I am clear about. “Or do you mean just through the male line?” That’s possible, since I’m working from memory, and my memory has never been terribly good. Even if you’re right about that, though, A.W. was pretty perceptive to realise that much talk about (demonstrable) descent from the Norman invaders of 1066 was so much hooey.

    A purported genealogical line with a gap in it, or a “probably”, or a “presumably”, is merest tosh.

  24. Anyone who has actually lived among peasants seems to think that they spend all of their waking hours working.

    In my traipsing around the world, I’ve generally found the women work all the hours God sends while the men loaf about watching them.

  25. Didn’t Alexander Armstrong show a direct line back to William I in Who Do You Think You Are?

    In any case, some people made economic and social advances after the Black Death. Most didn’t. There was more land available and some had the entrepreneurial chops to make life better for themselves by buying up the land and leaving subsistence farming behind. Most didn’t. Some left their manors to seek better work elsewhere. Most didn’t. Wages increased for a while due less labour being around but not for that long. Whatever caused the Black Death tended to kill the very old or very young hardest. Those of child-bearing age replaced children who died, so combined with a reaction from the nobles, the opportunity for the peasants to better themselves didn’t last that long.

    It’s about what you’d expect to happen. And wouldn’t you invent more convivial surroundings to get pissed if you thought death was just around the corner

  26. Have you read Greg Clark’s A Farewell To Alms ? From the intro :

    “the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.

    The quality of life also failed to improve on any other observable dimension. Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: thirty to thirty-five years. Stature, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children’s exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of
    unrelenting drudgery”

  27. Yes, I did indeed read it. I was one of the reviewers of that book for the papers. Torygraph I think….

  28. He’s definitely a “the worse, the better” guy. Not sure I can take all of this as gospel, but an interesting writer.

    “Mortality conditions also mattered, and here Europeans were lucky to be a filthy people who squatted happily above their own feces, stored in basement cesspits, in cities such as London. Poor hygiene, combined with high urbanization rates with their attendant health issues, meant incomes had to be high to maintain the population in eighteenth-century England and the Netherlands. The Japanese, with a more highly developed sense of cleanliness, could maintain the level of population at miserable levels of material comforts,
    and they were accordingly condemned to subsist on a much more limited income.”

    “For England we will see compelling evidence of differential survival of types in the years 1250–1800. In particular, economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success. The richest men had twice as many surviving children at death as the poorest. The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out. Preindustrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility. Given the static nature of the Malthusian economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy in order to find work. Craftsmen’s sons became laborers, merchants’ sons petty traders, large landowners’ sons smallholders. The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism— patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were thus spreading biologically throughout the population.”

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