The Black Death and Property Rights
Posted: 13 Feb 2003
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
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation