Throughout history, pandemics and plagues have been powerful changemakers: redistributing income and reducing inequality, according to research by Stanford historian Walter Scheidel. As the world struggles against the current coronavirus crisis, could social and economic transformations follow as before?

Here, Scheidel takes on this question, looking at how disease outbreaks in the past disrupted the status quo and catalyzed change. For example, The Black Death, the bubonic plague that tore through Europe and the Middle East from 1347 onward, led to collective bargaining and an end to feudal obligations. But these transformative changes came at a devastating cost – a third of all people in Europe and the Middle East lost their lives, Scheidel notes.

Scheidel, the Dickason Professor in the Humanities and a Catherine R. Kennedy and Daniel L. Grossman Fellow in Human Biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, an in-depth look into what he called “the four horsemen” of major economic leveling: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and plagues.

How have pandemics changed history? What makes them such a powerful changemaker?

Throughout recorded history, the most dramatic and violent ruptures were also the most effective levelers of social and economic inequality: the collapse of states, the world wars, the great communist revolutions. The worst pandemics belong in the same category. In pre-modern societies, they sometimes killed so many people that labor became scarce and the demand for land fell. This enabled workers to charge higher wages while landowners earned less: for a while, the rich became less rich and the poor less poor. In addition, the experience of plague undermined confidence in secular and religious authorities, encouraging commoners to question existing hierarchies and explore alternatives.

Can you provide an example? 

This dynamic is well documented for The Black Death, a catastrophic pandemic of plague that ravaged Europe and the Middle East from 1347 onward. Maybe a third of all people lost their lives, and in some places even more. In Western Europe, as the surviving workers earned higher incomes, they could afford better food and clothing. Meanwhile, nobles and elite landlords found it hard to maintain their extravagant lifestyles. They tried to push back, but with mixed results. In England, they failed to enforce ordinances meant to compel workers to stay put and keep working for low pre-plague wages. Rural workers resented efforts to uphold these rules, which blatantly favored employers, and also called for the abolition of feudal obligations. Even though a peasant uprising was put down, the wealthy ended up bargaining with the shrunken labor force in order to secure employees and tenants.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the upper class maintained a united front against the peasantry, forcing it to submit to onerous labor obligations. This shows that, by itself, the plague was not enough to level: local political power structures played a critical role in shaping overall outcomes.

Read the rest of Melissa De Witte’s article at Stanford News