From the perspective of the Black Death, the economic consequences for laborers in our unfolding pandemic, COVID-19, might come as a surprise. Instead of labor shortages benefiting workers, especially the unskilled, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, our pandemic has sent economic inequality racing forward across the world with laborers’ health and material well-being plummeting. However, a closer examination of the Black Death suggests that the consequences for labor of the two pandemics may not be as different as first assumed. This essay explores the silver lining for labor after the dramatic crash in population caused by the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague during the second half of the fourteenth century. By first turning to Europe as a whole and then concentrating on Italy, this essay challenges notions that labor conditions and standards of living improved immediately after the Black Death's halving of populations and that these changes were almost universal across Europe or even within city-states, such as Florence, or in rural areas hosting different sorts of agricultural workers. In Italy, where real wages have been calculated, the Black Death's silver lining for laborers failed to arrive until two or three generations after 1348. Moreover, compressing economic inequality from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth centuries spurred reactions from elites that wrought new inequalities in other spheres of activity.

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