Test: LSAT Reading

"Europe and the Black Death"

In a series of lectures published after his death, historian David Herlihy theorizes that the Black Death led to the transformation of Western Europe and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Herlihy’s lectures, written in 1985, draw comparisons to social phenomena associated with more recent epidemics, such as the influenza outbreak of 1919 and the mysterious arrival of AIDS in his own time. However, Herlihy writes that what made the Black Death so historically significant, other than the shocking death toll it levied, was the transformative impact that the plague had on labor markets, agrarian practices, economic innovation, and medical theory.

Herlihy’s lectures take aim at Thomas Malthus’s Iron Law of Population as laid out in his 1798 book titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. The Iron Law states that that population growth is necessarily limited by the available means of subsistence and actual population will be ultimately kept equal to the means of subsistence through catastrophic events. The Black Death, which deprived erstwhile-overpopulated 14th Century Europe of more than 25 million of its residents, became a seminal historical example of a Malthusian population check.

However, Herlihy cautions against characterizing the Black Death as a response to overpopulation in medieval Europe. If that were the case, he asserts, the epidemic would have arrived at the beginning of the century when population growth slowed amidst escalating food prices. Herlihy writes, "The medieval experience shows us 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." He posits that the term population deadlock, rather than population crisis, should be used to describe Europe before the epidemics.

According to Herlihy, the arrival of the Black Death to Europe in 1347 broke this deadlock. As a result of crashing populations, trade guilds and landowners went from a labor glut to a labor shortage virtually overnight. The shortage led to innovations in both agriculture and the production of goods. For example, Herlihy theorizes that the invention of the printing press in 1440 occurred in part because the Black Death and successive plagues culled the ranks of scribes needed to transcribe manuscripts by hand. He also argues that the sudden public health crisis bridged the divide between medical theorists and those actually treating patients, resulting in more anatomical research and medical innovation.

Still more profound, Herlihy writes, was the effect the population crash had on longstanding medieval social structures. In addition to forcing agricultural innovation, the plague’s strengthening of the labor market reduced the peasant’s dependence on wealthy landowners. In fact, evidence shows that the labor ranks thinned even more during the outbreak from pessimistic workers who opted to spend their precious remaining time on earth in leisure. Those who continued to work enjoyed greater social mobility, which led to the passage of sumptuary laws by members of the elite desperate to maintain their caste superiority in a waning feudal economic system.


Which of the following is most analogous to the passage’s discussion of the economic transformation in Europe following the Black Death?

a real estate price crash making homes more affordable for the working class

rising steel prices slowing new construction

an abundance of cheap labor limiting the drive to invest in automation

a sudden oil crisis leading to the invention of hyper-efficient engines

the discovery of an infectious disease creating a demand for new treatments

1/1 questions


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