How the Black Death Spawned the Minimum Wage

Black_DeathOK, this should be good … from Bloomberg:

Fast-food joints, long inhospitable to any kind of labor activism, are suddenly beset by a surge in strikes. Over the past few months, workers at chains such as McDonalds Corp. havewalked off the job in more than 60 cities, demanding a “living wage” of $15 an hour. Regardless of whether the strikes lead to better pay, they have rekindled debate over what constitutes a living wage.

That debate, however, has stranger, older and more curious origins than either proponents or detractors of the living wage might imagine.

The story begins in medieval England in the 14th century. Life, never particularly easy at this time in history, had become especially nasty, brutish and short. The preceding year, the “Great Pestilence,” better known as the Black Death, had arrived in continental Europe. The pandemic, one contemporary noted, “began in India and, raging through the whole of infidel Syria and Egypt,” reached England in 1349, “where the same mortality destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children.”

Once the dead had been buried, feudal society was shaken to its core by a startling realization. As this same chronicler complained, “there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people … were yet without all service and attendance.” Survivors could now command much higher compensation for their work, and they weren’t shy about asking for it: “The humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages.”

In response, King Edward III — a wealthy landowner who was as dependent on serfs as his many lords — issued the “Ordinance of Labourers,” which put a ceiling on how much workers could charge for their labor, setting wages at pre-plague levels. Subsequent amendments of the law — for example, the Statute of Labourers in 1351 — amplified the penalties for paying above set rates.

These laws effectively set what we would call a maximum wage. But the measures reflected something a bit more complicated than an attempt to stick it to the serfs. They embodied a distinctly medieval belief that one’s earnings should be commensurate with one’s station in life. The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that a man’s “external riches” must be sufficient “for him to live in keeping with his condition in life.” Anything less was cruel; anything more was an enticement to sin and a threat to the social order…

[continues at Bloomberg]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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5 Comments on "How the Black Death Spawned the Minimum Wage"

  1. kowalityjesus | Sep 6, 2013 at 1:51 am |

    The silver lining to the plague! Maybe we should cut funding to the CDC and then reap the benefits.

  2. Liam_McGonagle | Sep 6, 2013 at 10:00 am |

    You know, another way to restrict the supply of labor would be for people to simply refuse to work.

    • kowalityjesus | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm |

      that’s why the internet is so dangerous: an informational and autotelic experience that is FREE? this could bring down the system!

    • Hadrian999 | Sep 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm |

      people are too willing to stab each other in the back for a nickle for that to work

  3. Simon Valentine | Sep 6, 2013 at 12:09 pm |

    i certainly hope it doesn’t surprise anyone
    that tier
    means animal in German
    … is something that could be said
    nor that feudal and medieval never ended
    nor that slaves and surfs and class – both legit and illegitimate
    … still all occur
    … if any such thing occurs anyway
    because really
    any set of words could overlay the pattern
    “zomg the patterns match pretty”

    don’t clash the drapes

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