The Black Death and Property Rights

David D. Haddock

Northwestern University - School of Law and Department of Economics; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

L. Lynne Kiesling

Northwestern University

Journal of Legal Studies, July 2002

The plague visited unprecedented mortality on Europe for centuries, shifting the relative values of production inputs. It also changed the costs and benefits of defining and enforcing property rights. We develop a new property rights model to explain the decline in value of non-human factors of production, as well as the pattern and timing of land abandonment. Our model extends property rights theory by explicitly incorporating the range of common claims between open access and pure private property. Due to title enforcement costs, explicit claims on some non-human factors lapsed, even though communities continued to use the factors informally, in a commons framework. The marginal value of labor and human capital, in contrast, rose, placing insupportable stress on feudal institutions. The evolution of workers' rights over their own labor culminated in the subsequent disappearance of serfdom. Thus the Black Death illustrates how a demographic change induces evolutionary institutional change.

Keywords: Property rights, demographic change, evolutionary institutional change, epidemic, open access, commons, communal property, privatization, serfdom, feudal institutions, Black Death, plague

JEL Classification: K3, N0, N3, I1, P4, B2, O4

Accepted Paper Series

Not Available For Download

Date posted: February 13, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Haddock, David D. and Kiesling, L. Lynne, The Black Death and Property Rights. Journal of Legal Studies, July 2002. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=378620

Contact Information

David D. Haddock
Northwestern University - School of Law and Department of Economics ( email )
375 E. Chicago Ave
Unit 1505
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
PERC - Property and Environment Research Center
2048 Analysis Drive
Suite A
Bozeman, MT 59718
United States

L. Lynne Kiesling (Contact Author)
Northwestern University ( email )
2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States
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