Did a plague produce an unexpected social benefit?

That’s the fascinating speculation in this article in the Telegraph.

The Black Death may still be making its presence felt 650 years after it ravaged Europe, as a historian claims it led directly to the creation of the pub.

The plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, but in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later, said Prof Robert Tombs of Cambridge University.

. . .

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.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.”

There’s more at the link.

There are, of course, those who’d say that imbibing too much Guinness at the pub produces a ‘black death’ feeling in its own unique way . . . but far be it from me to join them (except over a glass or two).



  1. There's more than a few greenies who're quite certain the only thing we need to make heaven on earth is for 99% of the world's population to just sit down somewhere and die quietly.

    Of course, they're not in that 99%. They're special.

  2. Peter, totally off-topic. I wrote reviews of 'War To The Knife' and "Forge a New Blade" today, and posted it on My Facebook page, Sarah's Diner, Amazon, and Mad Genius Club. Are you particular friends with any body I could post on? When I'm doing my Hugo run-up, I add a link to people involved, usually Tom Kratman, Brad Torgersen (before he deployed) Larry Corriea, and Mad Mike Williamson.
    I wonder if Castalia House has a forum for book reviews.

  3. Nothing new about the ancient plague ultimately resulting in great improvements – I learned about that back in the late Sixties.

  4. I'll be more interested in the theory when it is endorsed by economists. The idea that with less people it is easier to find a job makes no sense economically. If you reduce a population, you reduce the numbers of jobs at a similar rate because jobs are there to serve the needs of the people who are there. With fewer people there are fewer needs to fill.

    More leisure time generally comes from an increase in productivity, and larger populations are generally more productive because they allow for more specialization. There may have been some effects from accumulated wealth spread out among fewer people (accumulated wealth is long-term things like buildings and cleared farm land) but I don't see how that could have the enduring effects that we see in the steadily improving human condition through that period.

    This kind of analysis is popular among Malthusians. I don't put much stock in it.

  5. It is true – in Western Europe. Once you get east of the Elbe, then things post-Plague get worse, because the reduction in population contributed to the intensification of serfdom (much as happened after the 30-Years-War.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *