Labor Shortages Alter Europe’s Social Structure

In the decades following the plague, a labor shortage radically altered the social and economic structures of Europe. Populations dwindled and family sizes decreased, and the economy transformed from one that was primarily agricultural and based on the bartering of services to an economy based on the marketplace and the selling of agricultural and manufactured goods.

Summary of Event

The bubonic and pneumonic plagues that terrorized Europe in 1348, and again at irregular intervals in the succeeding century, had a devastating effect on Europe’s human capital. Though the exact numbers of deaths will never be known, it is now estimated that about 40 percent of Europe’s population died. In comparison, the memorable widespread health disaster of the twentieth century, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, killed about 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. Economy;Europe
Fugger family
Henry VIII
Elizabeth I
Henry VIII (king of England)
Medici family
Elizabeth I (queen of England)

The late fifteenth century European economy transformed from one based on agriculture and the bartering of services to one that sold goods and services.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Sheep-shearing in late fifteenth century Europe.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In addition to the ravages of the plague, the endemic warfare of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries wreaked havoc on the countryside of France and England. Military action, but also the devastation brought about by unpaid mercenaries who pillaged at will, reduced the economies of much of Western Europe tremendously.

By the time the European economy began to recover, from the 1460’s onward, population decimation had changed the social structure of the continent in profound ways. Whereas, prior to the plague, population growth had pushed agricultural production to the margins of suitable land, after the plague, the number of people available to carry out the sowing and the reaping was reduced severely. The prior system of agriculture management, the manorial system, had relied on some nine-tenths of the population to do the hard work in the fields. These field-workers were serfs Serfdom , bound to the soil and its cultivation.

With a 40 percent reduction in available workers, however, serfs could bargain in ways that had been unavailable to them, for the laws of supply and demand worked then as they do in the twenty-first century. The serfs—the remaining agricultural workers—were able to demand that their obligations to the landlord be fulfilled, not with labor services but with money, and small amounts at that. They were able to demand the right to take over the plots of their neighbors who had died, in many cases becoming landowners themselves. They were able to convert plots that were no longer being cultivated into pasturage, to own that acreage’s grazing cattle and sheep, and sell the livestock if they so desired. Also, they had the option, if slight, to relocate to urban areas to look for work.

In the century or so after the plagues became infrequent and more localized, the surviving populace looked quite different from the one that had prevailed in the first half of the fourteenth century. Instead of a relatively uniform agricultural labor force, what emerged was one that was highly differentiated. At the top of the labor scale were active landlords, who rented out their land for money or who hired stewards to cultivate it for them and to sell the produce at market. Midway on the scale were agricultural workers who had their own holdings but who sold their labor for money to the large landlords. At the bottom were those without land, or with perhaps no more than a small plot with a cottage and a garden, who supported themselves entirely from their wages.

As the agriculture-based system converted to a market-based system, many chose to leave agriculture altogether and migrate to the towns. Even though towns were breeding grounds for the plague and other diseases because of their inadequate sources of water and waste disposal, they had jobs for those who had nothing to sell but their labor. Getting goods, both agricultural and manufactured, to the marketplace required the efforts of many, as the new market-based economy flourished.

Agriculture Agriculture;Europe shifted from crops (grain was needed less and less because of the smaller population) to pasturing livestock. The market for sheep’s wool, for example, increased because sheep were being raised in areas once dominated by crop lands. When there seemed to be a shortage of land for the market-based production of grain and wool in England, King Henry VIII seized the land-rich monasteries there in 1546 and disbanded them, opening the monastery lands to the cultivation of crops and the raising of sheep.

Before wool could be sold, it had to be spun and woven, so many came to earn their living weaving woollen cloth. Whereas England and Spain exported ever-larger amounts of wool, laborers in the Low Countries and in Italy spun and wove the wool into cloth. Profits from trade supported a growing urban middle class. Construction in many urban areas grew substantially, and builders prospered; their wages doubled between 1350 and 1500.

As many parts of Europe depended more on trade than they did on agriculture, those who had once controlled land shifted their focus. They rented out the land they controlled directly, often to men who made their living managing agricultural activity. They converted their castles and manor houses into country residences and lived there only part of the time. Also, they devoted far less of their time to military service and far more to administrating the growing national kingdoms.

Those members of the new middle class who were lucky enough to own land in the major urban centers, such as London or Paris, became rich renting out their properties. They would invest their profits in the innumerable government loans issued by the new national rulers, becoming, in effect, “rentiers,” living off the income generated by their assets, both real and financial. The wealthy Fugger family Fugger family of Augsburg, Germany, controlled most of the silver mines in Austria and lent money to the Habsburgs, the ruling family in Germany. Several Italian families, including the Medici, had become rich through trade and became rulers also.


The devastating drop in Europe’s population Population decimation;Europe between 1348 and 1450 had social consequences that reached beyond the conversion to a market- and, hence, money-based economy: The structure of the family changed. Starting in the late fifteenth century, the population began to recover. Sometime in the sixteenth century, and in some places, the population reached the level that it had achieved two hundred years earlier.

Europeans were still wary, however, about returning to the conditions of that earlier time, so they tended to restrict their family size to one that they knew they could sustain. Modern studies show that by delaying marriage, Europeans would limit the number of children they had depending on anticipated income from land holdings or from the parents’ job. Even though many had the chance to emigrate to the newly forming colonies of the New World, this cautious approach to reproduction continued. Not until the nineteenth century did Europeans again begin to create large families, when the Industrial Revolution offered new means of support.

Not all attempts to balance family size and means of support were successful. The late fifteenth and especially the sixteenth century witnessed “sturdy vagabonds,” unemployed men roving the countryside. During the reign of England’s queen Elizabeth I, vagabonding became such a problem that attempts were made to restrict those needing public assistance. Men would receive that help if they limited their residence to their place of birth. Some of these men could be pressed into military or naval service, but they were generally unwilling soldiers and sailors. Europe began to confront the issue of welfare.

Further Reading

  • Braudel, Fernand. The Structures of Everyday Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. The first volume of Braudel’s magisterial account of the rise of capitalism in western Europe, from 1500 to 1800.
  • Cipolla, Carlo. The Middle Ages. Vol. 1 in The Fontana Economic History of Europe. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Contrary to its title, most of this book deals with the transition from the medieval economy to the early modern economy.
  • Hatcher, John. Plague, Population, and the English Economy, 1348-1530. London: Macmillan, 1977. Describes the full effects of the plague on the population and economy of England.
  • Hoppenbrouwers, Peter, and Jan Luiten van Zanden, eds. Peasants into Farmers? The Transformation of Rural Economy and Society in the Low Countries (Middle Ages-Nineteenth Century) in Light of the Brenner Debate. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. A collection that examines the transition from a rural, or agricultural, economy and social structure to a market economy—from feudalism to capitalism—in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages and later.
  • Huppert, George. After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Describes the social consequences of the plague, especially in rural communities.
  • Potter, G. R., ed. The New Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1957. Chapters examine Europe during the Renaissance.
  • Toch, Michael. Peasants and Jews in Medieval Germany: Studies in Cultural, Social, and Economic History. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Examines the experience of the German peasantry, especially Jews, during the Middle Ages and through the fifteenth century, with a chapter on “Making Do with Little: Studies in the Economic History of the German Peasantry.”

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