Suffice it to say that after careful scrutiny, Herlihy persuasively rejects the Malthusian argument that the Black Death arose in response to a human population expanding beyond the capacity of the food supply to feed it. He contends that what existed was "not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period" and that the Black Death occurred entirely on its own[...]Herlihy argues that, catastrophic though the plague may have been, it had crucial liberating effects. By reducing the population so significantly, it shook Europe out of its Malthusian deadlock and brought about monumental change:
"A more diversified economy, a more intensive use of capital, a more powerful technology, and a higher standard of living for the people - these seem the salient characteristics of the late medieval economy, after it recovered from the plague's initial shock and learned to cope with the problems raised by diminshed numbers. . . . Depopulation gave access to farms and remunerative jobs to a larger percentage of the population. High wages and low rents also raised the standard of living for substantial numbers. They became acquainted with a style of life that they or their children would not want easily to abandon."
Its population reduced, Europe invented devices - technologies, as we now call them - to do the work of people. "Entirely new tools and machines" were devised and put to productive use. Out of unimaginable crisis, humankind found the raw materials and inner resources for rebirth. In the long view, the black Death was not annihilation but liberation. That is David Herlihy's view, and to the lay reader it is entirely compelling.
The plague did more than just devastate the medieval population; it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death began during a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century, and only served to worsen it. As a consequence, it greatly accelerated social and economic change during the 14th and 15th centuries. First, the church's power was weakened, and in some cases, the social roles it had played were replaced by secular ones. It also led to peasant uprisings in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).
OmieWise: You got me. That was indeed a Straw Man argument. They can be quite effective sometimes, if the Straw Man actually does correspond to what the person really does believe. It can sometimes make them reconsider. At least, one can hope.
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