Years ago, I read a collection of essays that addressed the ‘what if’s’ of history. In other words, how might’ve things been different if certain events did’t transpire. Those essays were fascinating, and set my mind to wonder about what could have been.
Fast forward to today. A few weeks ago, as I spoke with history professor Mark Smith from College of Idaho (see part 1 here, & part 2 here) about how Rats and Fleas impacted Europe by transmitting the Black Death, I was reminded of the “what if’ essays. So I asked him the question, what might have happened?
Mark Smith: This question is similar to asking what the world would be like had WWI never happened. The simple answer is: “Profoundly different.”
“What would have been” history is in some sense, an impossible game. We can’t know. But speculation about such matters can be interesting and revealing. Here I will offer a few basic thoughts.
The main effect on Europe, had the Black Death not occurred, is acceleration. Population, for example, grew very rapidly from the 10th to the 14th centuries. In most of history, human population has been controlled by food supply. Had the Black Death not occurred, human population growth would have hit the limit of food supply much sooner, especially since the climate also changed dramatically about the time of the Black Death, entering the last “mini Ice Age.” Thus, crop productivity was dropping at the same time population was rising. This combination was a recipe for big challenges which would only temporary be alleviated by the European discovery of the new world a bit more than a century later. Since human population is once again approaching its limits in terms of food (and water) supply, we can begin to envision the problems of living in such a crowded world. Humans would have encountered these problems much sooner had the Black Death not happened.
In the realm of economics, Europe would likely have developed much differently had much of the labor force not been wiped out. In particular, agrarian interests would have continued to dominate over urban and commercial interests for much longer, for serfdom would have been viable for a much longer period of time. This change would likely have sustained the dominance of the landed nobility and reduced the incentives for the rise of an incipient version of a “middle class” in the form of merchant capitalism.
If the landed nobility would have gained strength from the absence of a major epidemic, their dominance in the political sphere may also have been sustained. In this case, the result may well have been the deceleration of the rise of democratic institutions in places such as France.
Another realm of potential deceleration would be in religious reform. The Roman Catholic church of the middle ages was a major player in the agrarian world of feudalism and manorialism. The Black Death helped to weaken both, while at the same time encouraging the rise of critiques of the church — not because the church was too other-worldly, but because the church’s leadership was viewed by many as lacking in spiritual depth and integrity. These anti-clerical critiques had much to do with the rise of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Had the Black Death not happened, Europe may have been less inclined to be responsive to such Reformation leaders as Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin.
If necessity is the mother of invention, it is fairly easy to see that the Black Death created many new necessities for humans to work through if they hoped to survive and thrive on this planet. To the extent that the Black Death created necessity, the epidemic itself gave birth to many new inventions whose impacts ripple across the world to this day.