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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Was the Black death really such a good thing?

For those of us with an interest in social history this article in today's Telegraph is fascinating. They report on the views of Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University that the Black Death actually had some rather good effects for those who survived it.

Professor Tombs says that although the plague killed an estimated 1.5 million people in England between 1348 and 1350, in its aftermath, with fewer people competing for work and land, living standards reached a height not matched until centuries later:

Peasants had increased leisure time and freedom, so pubs became places for playing games, meeting and socialising.

The amount of free time available to 15th century workers was not equalled until the 1960s, Prof Tombs said.

“This was when the English pub was invented and people started drinking lots of beer and playing football and so on. That was in a way due to, or at least a consequence of, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the Black Death.”

He adds that people got better off, there was more land to go around, resources were not so stretched and what was later called the feudal system largely disappeared:

"Serfs became free because they could simply say to their lords, 'Ok, if you won’t give me my freedom I’ll go somewhere else’.

“And they did. So if lords wanted their fields to be tilled, they had to give their peasants or vassals what they wanted, which was essentially freedom and a better life.

“The standard of living people reached in the 15th century was not exceeded until the 1880s after the Industrial Revolution. And the amount of leisure they took was not equalled until the 1960s.”

Although people had brewed ale for many centuries, and drunk in taverns, the late Middle Ages is said to have seen the rise of the pub as would be recognised in the modern day.

“The brewing of ale was usually a cottage industry,” said Prof Tombs, a fellow of St John’s College who was promoting his book, The English and their History.

“Weak beer was the standard drink. But it’s in the early 15th century that you start getting places that are mainly, or permanently, dedicated to drinking beer that are also about playing games as well.

“That’s the origin of the pub; it’s a particular place. It’s not just that Mrs So-and-so brews berry occasionally and you can nip round to buy a farthing’s-worth of ale, but it’s now to become a full-time brewer with a public house one can go to at any time to eat and certainly socialise.

It just goes to show, some people can find the bright side to any tragedy.

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