Jim de Bree | Pandemics Have Changed History’s Course

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy and started studying my family’s history. My ancestors were Dutch, and fortunately, the Netherlands has maintained extensive records going back many centuries. 

One of my great-grandmothers descended from Dutch nobility and we are able to trace their history nearly 1,300 years. I also was able to find a number of books written about those ancestors, which provided considerable insight into their lives.

One aspect of this endeavor is that I also spent a significant amount of time researching the local history of the communities in which my ancestors lived, which often explained their actions. Over the past year, I have paid particular attention to the impact of pandemics.

Back in the 13th century, the Netherlands, like most of Europe, was a feudal society. 

The leaders of the Holy Roman Empire gave land to local nobility in exchange for oaths of loyalty and military service. The nobles, known as lords, leased much of the land to other families of privilege under leases. 

The leasehold interests were perpetual and were handed down to subsequent generations. 

The peasants, known as serfs, were bonded to the land where they lived and were subject to the will of the lords. There were no incentives for innovation, which led to economic stagnation.

During the decade of the 1240s, a plague struck the region where my ancestors lived. Just as with COVID, the poor were disproportionately affected. 

The mortality rate was so great that there were no longer enough serfs to productively farm the land. My ancestor, Lord Hubrecht II, had a serious problem and stood to lose his entire fortune. 

Hubrecht devised an innovative solution. 

He broke a substantial portion of the perpetual leases and offered to lease the land to the peasant serfs for short-term leases of only a few years. His idea was if the serfs shared in the profits, they would work harder and become more productive. 

He gambled that the crop yields would increase and farm productivity would be restored. 

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