How the Black Death Changed European History

By Daniel Gingerich and Jan Vogler

The German city of Cologne and a tale of two pandemics

Cologne in the western parts of Germany is best known for its magnificent Cathedral, the Kölner Dom, which is a world heritage site and attracts around six million visitors every year. In normal times, the city massively profits from the Cathedral’s popularity, with tourists coming from all over the world to spend their money in hotels, shops, and restaurants in the vicinity. Therefore, it is no surprise that the recent Covid-19 pandemic created hardship for the parts of the city’s economy that usually serve a steady stream of visitors.

But Covid-19 was not the only pandemic that affected the city of Cologne in its long history. In fact, the impact that the present pandemic has had on the local economy pales in historical comparison to the effects of the “Black Death”, a massive outbreak of plague that devastated much of the European continent in the years 1347–1351. Trade cities and centers of pilgrimage like Cologne were especially impacted by the Black Death. Since the bacterium that causes the disease (Yersinia pestis) was spread by infected rat fleas lurking in food shipments and other cargo, such highly connected trade settlements typically experienced the pandemic earlier and more intensely than did others. Indeed, Cologne (one of Europe’s largest settlements by 1300) is estimated to have lost almost one third of its population. Some major trade hubs in the north were hit even harder: Bremen, for instance, lost nearly sixty percent of its citizens as a consequence of the Black Death.

The transformative effects of the Black Death on medieval society and politics

Not only in Cologne and Bremen but in many cities and regions of Europe, the Black Death completely overwhelmed medieval society. Estimates of its death toll range from 30 to 60 percent of the continent’s total population, making it the deadliest pandemic in recorded human history. A catastrophe of this magnitude does not leave social structures untouched. To the contrary, the Black Death had a transformative impact: By radically increasing the relative price of labor vs. land in areas that had experienced demographic collapse, it fundamentally reshaped economic realities. Laborers had significantly more bargaining power and much greater mobility—conditions that ultimately led to the demise of serfdom. In certain areas, these changes in social organization helped contribute to the development of new forms of political participation and representation, thereby implanting local-level political cultures that would last for centuries.

In our new article, “Pandemics and Political Development: The Electoral Legacy of the Black Death in Germany”, we argue that the Black Death led to a sustained divergence in political development across the German-speaking lands of Central Europe. While the western and southern parts of these lands were hit hard by the pandemic and subsequently abandoned serfdom, the easternmost parts experienced only minor outbreaks and maintained or reinforced this coercive labor practice. This difference in the Black Death’s effects on serfdom is crucial to understanding its political consequences. Where serfdom ended and land became an abundant resource, laborers gained more freedoms and more bargaining power, making medieval society much more equal than it had previously been. On the other hand, where serfdom persisted (or became even more onerous), traditional social hierarchies and extant economic inequities were maintained by brute force.

We suggest that the significant improvement in the bargaining power of labor coupled with greater economic equality in areas that were hard hit by the Black Death led to the creation of proto-democratic institutions. These institutions occurred in different forms: For instance, in a number of medieval towns broader electoral participation was introduced for city councils. In other areas, where laborers had acquired their own land, they became more independent and began to self-govern and organize collectively. The creation of these proto-democratic institutions not only gave the peasants more political influence, but also shaped their ability to defend themselves against future transgressions of newly acquired freedoms. Thus, the fundamental changes in social mobility and collective organization could be maintained in the long run, which had further consequences for the conduct of politics.

How our study differs from previous research on the Black Death

In much previous research on the Black Death, it is assumed that the impact of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century was uniform across space. Yet a simple comparison of cities reveals that there was significant variation between locations. Most importantly, we already know from historical-epidemiological research that there were vast differences in the Black Death’s intensity between regions. (Such geographical variation is also commonly encountered for more contemporary pandemics, such as Covid-19.) The western regions of Central Europe were hit early and hard. But when the Black Death arrived in the eastern parts of the continent, there often only were minor outbreaks, creating a noticeable spatial divergence in the plague’s intensity.

Taking these geographic differences in Black Death intensity into account is important because its effects on labor markets depended on the plague’s severity at the regional level: Only when multiple locations in an area were hit hard by the pandemic did the region-wide labor supply contract to a sufficiently large degree so as to precipitate the collapse of serfdom. When only a single location was hit by the Black Death, with labor being a mobile factor of production, external market forces could easily restore the old political-economic equilibrium.

Our empirical assessment of the Black Death’s long-term impact

Building upon these insights regarding the Black Death’s differentiated impact, we develop a new measure: the Black Death Exposure Intensity (BDEI) score. The measure assigns a higher score to locations that were close to many and to more devastating outbreaks of the plague. Given the way it is constructed, the measure can be understood as conceptualizing how close any given geographic setting was to the pandemic’s center of gravity (the areas that had been subject to many outbreaks with high death tolls, often early in the pandemic’s course).

Our empirical analysis is split into several parts and covers a number of outcome dimensions. Our primary interest lies with understanding the Black Death’s long-term consequences for political behavior, especially how it affected voting patterns in Imperial Germany (1871–1918) and the Weimar Republic (1919–1933). In line with the argument that areas hit hard by the Black Death developed and sustained participative institutions (which catalyzed the development of democratic cultures), we find that these areas ultimately had a much better record of rejecting antidemocratic parties. This is evident in the fact that both the Conservative Party of the 1870s and the Nazi party of the 1920s/1930s performed significantly worse in areas that had been historically hit hardest by the Black Death.

In order to verify that our suggested mechanisms are driving these long-term outcomes, we conduct further analyses. A first test of our mechanisms demonstrates that the introduction of participative elections at the town level between 1300 and 1500 is associated with differences in historical Black Death intensities. Moreover, we conduct an analysis of historical census data which confirms that socioeconomic structures in early nineteenth-century Prussia were heavily affected by the pandemic’s historical intensity.

Why all of this matters

The Black Death introduced a significant spatial divergence in political institutions. In areas where the pandemic hit hard, changed socioeconomic realities resulted in the emergence of more participative political institutions. In areas where the pandemic hit less hard, serfdom persisted—effectively foreclosing possibilities for the development of proto-democratic institutions. In the long run, these diverging paths shaped the prospects of different political forces during the era of mass politics in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Thus, our study shows that the Black Death had multifaceted, comprehensive, and lasting effects on the conduct of politics in Central Europe.

This post is based on the authors’ recent World Politics article, which can be accessed here.


  • Daniel W. Gingerich

    Daniel W. Gingerich is Associate Professor of Politics, Director of the Quantitative Collaborative, and Co-Director of the Corruption Laboratory for Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law (CLEAR Lab – Democracy Initiative) at the University of Virginia.

  • Jan P. Vogler

    Jan P. Vogler is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Political Economy of Good Government in the CLEAR Lab (Democracy Initiative) and in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. In fall 2021, he will join the University of Konstanz in Germany as an Assistant Professor in Quantitative Social Science. His Twitter handle is: @Jan_Vogler

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