Lessons from the “Black Death” in the Middle Ages & Its’ Relevance for us in the Modern Post Covid World.
“History does not repeat itself but it certainly does rhyme” — Mark Twain
I finished watching the 24 episode series of “The Black Death” and it was eye opening. A grim topic but relevant for all of us in the middle of the Covid-19 global pandemic. I came out grateful that as awful, tragic and scary as the Coronavirus is, it is NOT the Bubonic Plague (Thankfully).
Why? Similar to our times, in the decades preceding 1346, there was a major population and economic boom, where the European population doubled. But after 1346, plague hit like a bomb and Europe’s 150M population was gutted by the “Black Death” or “Great Mortality”. Globalization of Trade spread the pandemic like a scythe as the plague via fleas were carried by Italian traders fleeing the Middle East. Incidentally, the plague also started in Hubei. Yes that Hubei, ie. where Wuhan is.
An estimated 50% of the population in Europe died as the plague ravaged almost every part of Europe. Even worse, it recurred almost every decade till 1667. Because of the lack of understanding of what this was, you had an 80% chance of dying if you got it. Terrifying stuff. Many people then thought the whole world was ending as Entire villages and cities were wiped out. One region impacted disproportionately was England. It had been hit by months of rainstorms and bad crops prior to Bubonic Plague arriving, so the people there died at far higher rates due to deeper malnutrition.
The ineffectiveness of the Church during Plague led to growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment of the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. The mass deaths dislocated the Social order. Where in earlier times, the Church and Nobility were very rigid orders, they were forced to open up to the lower classes. Merchants and others in the social order were welcomed in and moved up. Society adapted because that’s what people do despite the awful experience.
Great wealth & opportunities came out of this. Laborers were now in high demand, and their purchasing power increased 40% between 1340–1380. Also there was mass movement to the city and urban areas. Populations began to cluster, leading to the rise of cities. Survivors inherited more wealth and land. Merchantmen survivors ended up with virtual monopolies of their trade. We saw the growth of merchant class & specialization, concentration and rise of Town Market Fairs for mass trade.
At a bigger macro level, we saw the rise of a global trading system that further connected Europe to Asia & the Middle East. The Serfdom system went into decline as social mobility increased. The Noble classes were negatively affected as their control and power were weakened. Things never went back to normal.
Massive decentralization happened on a geopolitical basis as there was no major kingdom that came out unscathed. The Great Protestant Reformation was a direct result of the decline of the Catholic Church. The Black Death ushered in a new era. At a macro societal level, historians believe that if the Black Death did not happen the glorious European Renaissance that came after would have been delayed several centuries & heralded Europe’s progress away from the Medieval times.
So what’s the point of all this? What’s the lesson here?
Even though most of us hunger to get back to normal, things have changed too much now for that to happen. In this modern day age, we’ve seen the USA & many other countries humbled. The public’s trust in present leadership, government, business and media has eroded to the lowest levels ever.
Crisis exposes weaknesses that were hidden and ignored. The glaring ineptitude and leadership gaps. Structural market and organizational issues. Weak medical systems and infrastructure become VERY apparent. This was whether you are a Nation-State (USA, Brazil, Russia, UK etc.) or Business (many retail stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdales, JCPenney etc.) or NGOs (WHO, CDC).
When proper civic action, capable leadership and effective execution meets lucky circumstances and good geography, good things can happen. This occurred in Nuremberg, Iceland or Milan, all places that escaped relatively unscathed during the Black Death. In our modern Covid-19 times, we have seen that occur in Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Finland, Czech Republic, the Baltic States, Greece and Iceland.
But some good comes for the survivors. “Chaos is a Ladder” as new opportunities appear. Trends like ecommerce, virtual education & medical care and digital transformation in corporations have occurred faster in 6 months period versus 5 years. Companies that did not have product market fit, now do as the consumer and enterprise market has changed dramatically.
Like the Spanish Flu in 1918 where an estimated 17 million up to 50 million+ people died (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu), the “Roaring Twenties” happened soon after. The 1920s were a time of economic, cultural growth and hedonism as people tried to forget the horrors that preceded it. The 1920s were known for the rich cultural milieu, economic prosperity & dynamism in Berlin, Shanghai, Chicago and New York!
I expect something similar to happen post 2021. I am steeling myself for more economic, political & societal pain over the next year. But once we get through this, i am very confident we will enter into our own new technology-driven “Roaring Twenties.”