How the Black Death made the rich richer

(bbc.com)

40 points | by clouddrover 34 days ago

6 comments

  • dumbfoundded 34 days ago

    The wikipedia page points to the exact opposite conclusion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequences_of_the_Black_Deat...

    • mrec 34 days ago

      TFA does acknowledge that view, but the striking thing for me about it was that its discussion of "the rich" is overwhelmingly focussed on the urban mercantile classes and financiers, rather than the aristocratic landowners. A newly-empowered peasantry supports the former while weakening the latter.

      • coderintherye 34 days ago

        I think it is a bit more nuanced than that, the wiki states: "On the other hand, in the quarter century after the Black Death, it is clear that in England many labourers, artisans, and craftsmen, those living from money-wages alone, did suffer a reduction in real incomes owing to rampant inflation."

        So, nominal income might have gone up even while real income went down and either way wealth could have become more concentrated (which is what the BBC article is expounding on) even while laborers earned more.

        • dumbfoundded 34 days ago

          It seems like the decline of the feudal system was the dominant trend.

        • roenxi 34 days ago

          About 20-40% of the population seem to be constitutionally unable to save, so any time a population gets wealthier the rich tend get richer because if property rights exist someone is going to end up owning any new wealth.

          There isn't any inconsistency with the article's commentary and the observation that it was better to be a peasant post-plague than pre-plague. The rich got richer, the merchants became fabulously wealthy and the poor became better off.

          The important trend here is that power moved from aristocratic landowners, who aren't really that bright as a class, to merchants who tend to be pretty clued up.

          • anonytrary 34 days ago

            Noteworthy considering that both BBC and Wikipedia are treated as relatively reliable sources of information. If even they can't agree, then it is a measurement of either our own ignorance, or those source being less reliable than we thought. For example, I wouldn't recommend going to Wikipedia for everything (applied) math related. A lot of pages on the advanced stuff are sparse and obscure, and there are also plenty of cases where equations or explanations have been wrong.

            • wwright 34 days ago

              Or maybe it is possible for an economic phenomena to have multiple valid interpretations, and sources aren’t inherently aligned to some idealistic idea of objectivity and reliability

              • hogFeast 34 days ago

                I studied economic history. I am not an expert on medieval economic history but the take in the article is definitely bad (unf, this is becoming more and more common).

                I am not going to speculate as to why but as an example:

                The article talks about government funding...this makes no sense, literally none...it is generally accepted that nation states didn't exist until about 3 or 4 centuries after the period in question, and govt finance as it exists today came half a century after that.

                The article talks about companies...again, companies didn't exist for another 4 centuries.

                These are basic elements of economic history in the period. If you study history, day one of a research course would be...don't read the present into history. This is one of the worst examples I have ever seen (and part of the research course I did was literally looking at the worst examples...this is worse...no historical article should include comments supporting a current political proposal, as this article does...it is just totally inappropriate).

                And yes, the Wikipedia article linked is correct (in the sense that this is the generally accepted account). The dynamics of this are well understood: famines, plagues, wars, etc. triggered huge prosperity (and the poorest generally benefit most as always) because the main limit on growth was the number of people growing beyond what productivity/resources could support (this happened again in the 17th century and is why America was populated...so these periods are significant). When lots of people died, there was room for growth.

                No, the BBC is not a reliable source of information and hasn't been for a number of years. The article is (unfortunately) quite typical: people have a preconceived notion about what is true, and then gather information that confirms that conclusion. At best, this is an example of an editor who has hijacked the original article...at best (the university attended by one of the authors is, however, not surprising to me). It is important not to confuse information that you want to believe is true with actual reality. I don't think it is particularly controversial to point out that 95% of the population (journalists closer to 99%) have gone off the deep end when it comes to this.

                (It is maybe worth adding, the narrative in the article is one of those subjects where some news organisations will just pump endless stories about how the rich are exploiting X or Y. These articles do very well on social media but the fact that they draw the same conclusion about every single event should lead you to ask whether they don't have an "angle". Eliciting jealousy and rage is money in the pocket for journalists, jealousy is a very predictable and bankable emotion.)

                • Ericson2314 34 days ago

                  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stora_Enso so it's looks like perhaps there technically were some proto-joint-stock companies by the bubonic plague, but yes the article is quite bad, rather shockingly given the authors' academic credentials.

                  I dunno what corner of academy they are from, but in every one I'm aware of, using historically-specific terminology like this in a different period is a major faux-pas.

                  • chewz 34 days ago

                    > no historical article should include comments supporting a current political proposal, as this article does...it is just totally inappropriate

                    I do agree with the spirit but all history is really revisionist history and all is in fact re-creating the narrative in current context.

                    • sacred_numbers 34 days ago

                      Government does not always mean nation states. In this context I believe it is talking about regional, feudal government for the most part. As for companies, the corporate structure may not have been developed yet, but there were guilds, partnerships and other business ventures. The article does mistakenly use the term corporation in one place, though.

                      I don't see any contradiction between the linked article and the Wikipedia article. Peasants absolutely benefited from the shortage of labor, while feudal lords lost power. This power vacuum was partially filled by guilds and merchants who were able to take advantage of the new economic situation. I'm not a historian, so I don't know all of the details, but I don't think the two sources contradict each other.

                      As for historical articles not supporting political proposals, that may be a faux pas in academia, but I would hope that the people making and evaluating political proposals are carefully studying similar periods in history to understand the possible effects of their proposals.

                    • Ericson2314 34 days ago

                      This is an opinion piece from the BBC.

                    • scottlocklin 34 days ago

                      It's little remarked upon that the BBC is an instrument of government propaganda; about as trustworthy as Soviet Izvestia was in such matters.

                    • GuB-42 34 days ago

                      This article is all over the place. The author tried to fit the current COVID-19 pandemic to the Black Death, even though they have very little in common.

                      Obviously, a pandemic is a major event, many changes happen after major events, and out of many changes, by chance alone, you are bound to find similarities with other events. Making some (not all) rich people richer is also bound to happen. When wealth is shuffled around, there are winners and losers, and among the winners, some are rich to begin with, and therefore, some rich get richer.

                      In order to make parallels like the article did, you can't escape statistical analysis, like proper scientific papers. Here, it just looks like cherry picking a few bits to draw a picture that is not even consistent.

                      • cerealbad 34 days ago

                        Demography of England:

                          1348 4,810,000 +16.7%
                        
                          1351 2,600,000 −45.9%
                        
                          1650 5,310,000 +29.2%
                        
                        300 years to recover
                        • vnchr 34 days ago

                          It’s interesting to consider how many corporations will weather this pandemic and how many small businesses will not.

                          • pmiller2 34 days ago

                            I agree. I think we're going to see a lot more wealth concentration because of all the business shutdowns. And, soon, landlords may be going bankrupt because tenants aren't able to pay and some (how many?) states have eviction moratoriums. Even if they could evict non-paying tenants, the rental market is softening to an extent that could certainly take down some smaller or overleveraged players.

                            • nikanj 34 days ago

                              Probably more likely to take down Bob and Claire who have HELOCed their way into 4 AirBnB properties than REITs that own entire apartment buildings, leading to further concentration of the housing ownership.

                              • dd36 34 days ago

                                The $600 week is preventing mass defaults by tenants.

                          • silicaroach 33 days ago

                            it didn't. In fact it gave rise to the middle class, caused the coming in to being of inheritance and real estate laws, and empowered workers. Why? A wealthy land owner was only as rich as what the owned land produced. With all the deaths the workers who remained became valued. Similarly, who inherited what became very important as literally whole families died. And with the laws came fairer treatment for everyone.

                            • dylan604 34 days ago

                              In pretty much any major negative event, the rich will get richer. As the negative event starts to impact non-rich people financially to the point they have to sell off things of value (stocks, property, etc) it is the wealthy that can buy it from them.

                              • dumbfoundded 34 days ago

                                Not if the event is fundamentally disruptive enough for existing business. War, disease and famine tend to redistribute wealth.