The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below

Labour-Saving Devices

John Kelly's book 'The Great Mortality: An Intimate History Of The Black Death' suggests that there was, within a hundred year period of the Black Death (1348-1351), a gradual emergence of 'labour-saving devices' in many areas of society which accommodated for the massive decline in human labour brought on by the pestilence. Here is a brief outline of some of the devices and changes:

Agriculture: The scarecrow, a cross-cultural iconic effigy for thousands of years, became a much more familiar sight after the Black Death. A bird-scaring device as well as a preventative measure against rodents and, according to folklore, a sacrificial emblem for fertile land. It was also, with regards to property, a warning sign for trespassers. A more common deterrent in pre plague Europe were children (and adults) scaring birds off the land with clapper boards and throwing stones.

Communication: Before the invention of the printing press, book production was a very labourious task, requiring several copyists, each of whom would write out a section called a quire. In the pre plague era of low wages, this method could still produce an affordable product, but after the Black Death this would be much more difficult with less copyists. The invention of the Gutenberg Press alleviated these problems.

Warfare: With the salaries of soldiers increasing, due to a lack of people available for impressment, war became much more expensive, which spurred the development of firearms. Weapons such as musket and cannon meant the new high-wage soldier would provide more for the military cost.

Medicine: With a greater emphasis on practical, clinically orientated medicine such as autopsies, there was a decline in the role of the physician and an increase in the importance of the surgeon. Before the Black Death the hospital's function was to isolate the sick, removing them from society and preventing them from infecting or indeed offending as was the assumption. After the Black Death, a hospital's main focus was to attempt to cure the ill and an innovative ward system in the hospital gradually became the norm, isolating certain illnessess and diseases from each other to lower the chance of cross-contamination. The idea of public health and a public health board evolved across Europe, particularly in Italy with the introduction of the 'plague house', a form of quarantine (translates in Italian as meaning 40 days) with a triple function of hospital, nursing home and prison.

Education: The lack of priest-educators due to many dying of the pestilence brought on the decline of education, and was a reason for many new universities being founded in the UK, with Cambridge and Oxford establishing new colleges (4 and 2 respectively) and many founded across Europe in Florence, Prague, Vienna, Cracow and Heidelberg.