Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

This isn't the first time a pandemic has made the rich even richer

Pandemics can stretch the average person's finances to the limit. Yet, as cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn writes, there are always those who profit from disaster.

After the Black Death, a handful of people accumulated stunning wealth. Sound familiar?

From left, billionaires Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have been competing to develop spaceflight, an ambition previously inaccessible to private individuals. (Britta Pedersen/Getty Images; Virgin Galactic; Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters )

This column is an instalment in our series Apocalypse Then, in which cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn examines the issues of COVID-19 through the lens of the past.

Between layoffs, furloughs, closures and sick leave, pandemics stretch the average person's finances to the limit. Yet, there are always those who profit from disaster.

During COVID-19, the richest people in the world have quietly gotten richer, mirroring what happened after the Black Death almost 700 years ago.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic the wealth of the planet's billionaires grew by 54 per cent, or $4 trillion.

Thirteen of the world's richest people saw their wealth increase by 500 per cent or more, up to a high of 3,300 per cent. Most of these individuals own companies that were able to capitalize on the unusual market conditions.

E-commerce and streaming services benefited from lockdowns that trapped consumers in their homes. Other companies rose to the top when their competition folded under the strain of the global recession that dogged the path of the virus.

Unprecedented wealth

The world's wealth, in other words, is becoming concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of hands. After the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, a handful of people also accumulated unprecedented levels of wealth and power.

At first, the Black Death was, unsurprisingly, bad for business. There had been a recession in some parts of Europe even before the pandemic began, and the economic and social upheaval of the plague drove many companies to bankruptcy.

Before the Black Death, merchants in Europe were often held in contempt for profiting from the community, instead of contributing to it. (Public domain)

The businesses that withstood the onslaught, however, were poised to take advantage of a new type of consumer.

The mortality rate of the plague was so high among the poor that it resulted in a labour shortage, and members of the lowest classes suddenly found themselves in demand.

Prior to the Black Death, peasants had typically been given room and board in return for farming the land of wealthy aristocrats. Afterward, improved labour conditions meant many peasants were able to negotiate higher wages and earn cash they could spend as they chose.

Meanwhile, aristocrats, who had inherited the estates of their deceased relatives, were lining up to exchange their newfound wealth for every manner of luxury.

Splurging on luxuries

As the plague tapered out and survivors realized they had outlasted the disease, there was a surge of consumption. If the roaring '20s were society's release after the stress of the 1918 Spanish flu, the ostentatious spending that followed the Black Death was an affirmation of the material world after the annihilation wrought by the plague.

After the plague, survivors eager to enjoy life again spent more money on consumer goods, making merchants increasingly powerful. (Public domain/Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Revelling in their new lease on life, the upper crust splurged on clothing, jewelry and art. Their shopping spree not only launched fashion as we know it — clothing and cosmetic trends that change from year to year — it probably helped to fuel the artistic flowering of the Renaissance.

In the centuries after the Black Death, the companies that were poised to profit from all this consumption grew larger and larger, and their owners became more prestigious.

Merchants had previously been considered parasites on society because they pursued personal gain instead of providing an essential service like agriculture, manufacture, or military defence.

As merchants grew wealthier, though, their social status shifted. They bought land and married into the aristocracy. Some of them gained influence by loaning money to the government and were awarded titles in return.

Members of the merchant class soon began to displace hereditary nobles in political circles, holding various offices and serving in European parliaments.

From prosperity to power

One notable merchant family that rose to prominence during this period were the Medici. In 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici founded a bank in Florence that quickly became Europe's largest. By the time of Giovanni's death, he had amassed a fortune of 180,000 gold florins, the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars today.

Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), an heir of the Medici banking family, became Duke of Florence in 1537 and was later elevated to the position of Grand Duke of Tuscany. (Public domain)

Their prosperity translated to political power. The Medici family came to rule the city of Florence, four Medici men became popes, and two Medici women became queens of France.

Previously, aristocrats had pointed to noble birth as a sign of a divinely ordained right to rule.

Now wealth alone — inherited or earned — became a source of political authority. Over time, wealth came to be seen as evidence of desirable leadership traits like diligence, wisdom and accountability, whether or not someone actually displayed those traits in practice.

The ascension of merchants to political prominence after the Black Death laid the groundwork for the "revolving door" relationship between business and government that persists in Western nations to this day, permanently shifting the balance of power from the landed aristocracy to a new elite.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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