Demand for labor after the plague

As the farming situation slowly stabilized in the next century, the plague kept returning to clear out surplus workers. Probably, in every year until the 1600s, someone in Europe had bubonic plague; regional outbreaks occurred without becoming continent-wide events. Other illnesses and weather-related famines took their toll as always.

If Europe had been over-populated for its level of development in 1300, it no longer was. Its level of development sped up after 1400, too. More iron production, more coal mining; more metals of other kinds, more wind and water powered mills; more specialized crafts, more machines to spin, weave and carve; more specialized land use, better crop hybrids. The continent did not again reach a point of feeling like it could not feed its people (barring weather-related famines) for many centuries.

Additionally, the continent’s population was now spilling into the New World. From 1500 to maybe 1950, there was always a sense of some frontier where restless surplus men could go if they weren’t fit for a ladder-climbing traditional rat-race work environment at home. The very existence of a frontier shaped Europe’s mentality, and subsequently, America’s and Australia’s.

People tended to have big families. I want to talk more about this in other ways in future essays, but for now, let’s just look at it economically. There was never a question of five sons growing up and finding no work. (Except for local, temporary downturns, which still happened.) They could go to sea, or emigrate, or head into the city to get job training. If parents could feed ten children, they could feel confident that all ten would find places in the economy.

When the economy is expanding but there are still serious mortality threats, people’s philosophical attitude to individual life is “it is precious.” Each person matters and can fill out the place the world has for him.

This idea became a bedrock notion of Western society. It shaped medicine, farming, education, social class change, and religion. I’ll pick up another thread of life after the Black Death next, but we’ll find that other topics, too, eventually connect to the same idea.

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