Post-plague Era

The industries of towns likewise found a different climate in the post-plague era. Without doubt the great epidemic caused tremendous short-run disruption, as the social mechanisms of markets, transportation, money institutions, and pro- duction collapsed in varying degree; a sudden dearth of artisans, or merchants, or seamen might each bring their trade to a standstill, with effects that rippled through an entire local economy. In the somewhat longer term, urban industries shared some—but not all—of the circumstances that affected the rural economy. A peasant in the countryside could benefit immediately from more or better land after 1348; an urban artisan did not have those advantages. Productivity of urban crafts may have declined per capita, at least temporarily, owing to the loss of hard- to-replace skills. But some evidence suggests that such a decline was very tempo- rary, and that both productivity and prices rose in the years after 1350. For that prosperity both demand for manufactured goods and greater efficiency of produc- tion may have been responsible. The same factors that promoted the sale of “luxury” agricultural products also applied to manufactures; with more disposable income, consumers demanded more clothing (or fancier clothing, involving silks and dyestuffs) and the products of skilled artisans. Not all manufacturers prof- ited; wool cloth made in Florence declined relative to the luxurious silk, and hard times for some artisans (also facing competition from wool producers elsewhere) resulted. Certainly contemporary observers noticed that conspicuous consump- tion was a common reaction among survivors of the Black Death.

In the century after the great epidemic, Europe embarked on one of its seminal periods of technological innovation. The sternpost rudder and the ship outfitted with both square-rigged and lateen sails expanded the possibilities of ocean navigation, and Europeans simultaneously adopted compasses from Asian civilizations. By about 1450 the various technologies involved in printing by movable type had been brought together. In the 1400s the use of firearms made headway; what in the 1300s had been a battlefield curiosity became before the end of the 1400s a decisive weapon of war. These technological changes are dramatic and well known, but others of great importance also appeared in the late 1300s and the 1400s. Especially significant were the spinning wheel and the rapid spread of such instruments of power as water- and windmills (especially the latter) in industrial processes. In some manner we may see all of these technological changes as “labor saving,” whether printing presses that save the labor of copy- ists, mills that save the labor of fullers, or cannon that save the labor of battering- ram carriers. Is it too much to wonder whether the scarcity of labor in the century after 1350 encouraged such innovations?

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