Jim de Bree | Pandemics Have Changed History’s Course

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

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. 

Hubrecht was widely criticized by the families of privilege who were disenfranchised by his actions. He was viewed as a controversial figure by other lords and was not entirely trusted by the peasants.

A decade later, not only was productivity restored, but farm production far exceeded pre-pandemic levels. 

Hubrecht significantly increased the rents he charged for the land. He soon was sufficiently wealthy that he could build castles. It is likely that these reforms would have eventually occurred anyway, but reform was hastened by the plague and the economic necessity of dealing with its aftermath. 

While this may be an interesting story in its own right, there are parallels today. 

We live in a world where socioeconomic trends are changing society. One of our biggest challenges is how we will migrate from an industrialized society to a technologically based society. 

Technology is altering our economic landscape by replacing human labor with cyber capacity. Whenever major socioeconomic changes occur, wealth becomes concentrated and many people are left behind. History tells us that this is a recipe for social unrest that will lead to changes in societal norms. 

Much has been written about these trends, which were expected to evolve over several decades. 

The current pandemic has accelerated these trends. Just think about how different your life is from last year. Are you making greater use of technology? Do you shop more online instead of going to brick-and-mortar retailers? 

Institutions that are unable to adapt to the new technological paradigm will cease to exist. Their extinction is hastened by the pandemic.

Although we tend to look at these trends societally, there is an individual component to this phenomenon because each of us is impacted by the resulting changes.

This is demonstrated by a pandemic-related impact on my family about 100 years ago. 

My maternal grandfather came from a family of wealth, but he had no business acumen. At the close of World War I, he was seen as a failure and had no further business opportunities. 

Meanwhile, the Spanish flu killed millions in the Dutch East Indies. 

In the early 1920s there was an urgent need for Dutch businessmen to take over leaderless businesses in Java. In response, my grandfather moved his family from Rotterdam to Bandung. My father also saw opportunity and moved from Amsterdam to Bandung to work for KLM Airlines. 

There was only one social class in colonial society, so my father, who descended from Dutch peasants, was able to marry my mother, who descended from nobility. That would not have happened without the Spanish flu pandemic creating opportunity for both sides of my family. 

As we endure the current pandemic, it is highly likely that socioeconomic trends will accelerate, and once again, a major pandemic will alter the course of history — and our individual lives.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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