Elsewhere, however, repression prevails. At the end of medieval Eastern Europe, from Prussia and Poland to Russia, the nobles agreed to impose serfdom on their peasants in order to lock up an exhausted workforce. This has changed long-term economic results for the region as a whole: free labor and prosperous cities have spurred modernization in western Europe, but development in the eastern periphery has lagged behind.
Further south, the Mamluks of Egypt, a regime of foreign conquerors of Turkish origin, maintained a united front to maintain strict control over the land and continue to exploit the peasantry. The Mamluks forced the declining population to pay the same rents, in cash and in kind, as before the plague. This strategy plunged the economy into trouble as farmers revolted or abandoned their fields.
But more often than not, repression has failed. The first known plague pandemic in Europe and the Middle East, which started in 541, is the first example. Anticipating by 800 years the order of the English workers, the Byzantine emperor Justinian denounced the rare workers who “demand double and triple wages and salaries, in violation of the old customs” and forbade them “to yield to the detestable passion of greed “- to charge market wages for their work. The doubling or tripling of the actual income reported on papyrus documents from the Byzantine province of Egypt leaves no doubt that his decree fell on deaf ears.
In the Americas, the Spanish conquistadors faced similar challenges. In what was the most horrific pandemic in history, started as soon as Christopher Columbus touched down in the Caribbean, smallpox and measles wiped out indigenous societies in the Western Hemisphere. The advance of the conquistadors was accelerated by this devastation, and the invaders quickly rewarded themselves with huge properties and entire villages of peons. For some time, the rigorous application of wage controls set by the Viceroyalty of New Spain prevented surviving workers from taking advantage of the growing labor shortage. But when labor markets were finally opened after 1600, real wages in central Mexico tripled.
None of these stories had a happy ending for the masses. When the population recovered after Justinian’s plague, the Black Death and the American pandemics, wages fell and the elites regained control. Colonial Latin America continued to produce some of the most extreme inequalities ever recorded. In most European societies, disparities in income and wealth increased for four centuries until the eve of the First World War. It was only then that a new great wave of catastrophic upheavals undermined the established order and that economic inequality fell as seen since the Black Death, if not the fall of the Roman Empire.
When looking for the enlightenment of the past on our current pandemic, we should beware of superficial analogies. Even in the worst-case scenario, Covid-19 will kill a much smaller share of the world’s population than any of these previous disasters, and will affect the workforce and the next generation even more. Labor will not become scarce enough to drive up wages, nor will the value of real estate fall. And our economies no longer depend on agricultural land and manual labor.
Yet the most important lesson in history continues. The impact of any pandemic goes far beyond lost lives and reduced trade. Today, America faces a fundamental choice between defending the status quo and embracing progressive change. The current crisis could lead to redistributive reforms similar to those triggered by the Great Depression and the Second World War, unless well-established interests prove too powerful to be overcome.