Plague and Protest Go Hand in Hand

Historians in the News
tags: England, public health, pandemics, Protest

A deadly and contagious illness sweeps the country, and strict quarantine measures are swiftly implemented. The death count rises, but government reporting is unreliable. Social isolation takes its toll as political tensions escalate. Citizens break government mandates, asserting their right to work. Neighbors turn on each other. In response to long-standing social injustices, riots break out, and protesters demand systemic change. Sound familiar?

While the parallels are striking, this is not a description of 2020. It’s a description of early modern England. Starting with the Black Death, in 1348, and continuing for more than 300 years, Europe was struck with incessant waves of plague. In England, this proved especially deadly between 1563 and 1666, when multiple epidemics hit London. The social response generated by these outbreaks mirrors what we are experiencing today. Plague and protest, in short, are correlated.

Scholars like Philip Ziegler and Mark Senn have argued that the Black Death of 1348 laid the groundwork for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the first large-scale popular revolt in England. As they explain the connection, the Black Death killed more than half of the English population. Severe labor shortages gave peasants the upper hand, and an opportunity to demand an end to serfdom.

During the Peasants’ Revolt, peasants executed members of the Royal government, broke open jails, and burned public buildings. Although plague and protest did not occur concurrently—the revolt itself occurred thirty years after the Black Death swept through Europe—Senn suggests the plague exacerbated the oppressive social conditions that already existed in London, leading to revolt. In essence, economic grievances—increased fines and taxes, high rents, fixed incomes—were the basis of the revolt.

Read entire article at JSTOR Daily

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