Opinion | How Will the Coronavirus Affect Workers? Look At Past Plagues For a Hint – By Walter Scheidel – The New York Times

By 

Mr. Scheidel is a professor of classics and history at Stanford University.

Credit…Bridgeman Images

This article is part of “The America We Need,” a Times Opinion series exploring how the nation can emerge from this crisis stronger, fairer and more free. Read the introductory editorial and the editor’s letter.

“In the fall of 1347, rat fleas carrying bubonic plague entered Italy on a few ships from the Black Sea. Over the next four years, a pandemic tore through Europe and the Middle East. Panic spread, as the lymph nodes in victims’ armpits and groins swelled into buboes, black blisters covered their bodies, fevers soared and organs failed. Perhaps a third of Europe’s people perished.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” offers an eyewitness account: “When all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships’ cargo.” According to Agnolo di Tura of Siena, “so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

And yet this was only the beginning. The plague returned a mere decade later and periodic flare-ups continued for a century and a half, thinning out several generations in a row. Because of this “destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish,” the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the entire inhabited world changed.”

The wealthy found some of these changes alarming. In the words of an anonymous English chronicler, “Such a shortage of laborers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent for triple wages.” Influential employers, such as large landowners, lobbied the English crown to pass the Ordinance of Laborers, which informed workers that they were “obliged to accept the employment offered” for the same measly wages as before.”