Sunday, December 17, 2006

Did the Plague Create Real Estate Agents?

Joan Acocella, reviewing a book about the Black Death in the March 21, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, gives these sobering statistics:

In four years [circa 1350], the plague had killed at least a third of the population of Europe: twenty-five million people ... Measured against Europe's population today, the Black Death took the equivalent of almost two billion lives.
Untreated by appropriate antibiotics, which were not introduced until the nineteen-forties, bubonic plague kills three out of five of its victims within two weeks. If the disease goes straight to the lungs -- a variation known as pneumonic plague -- the course is shorter and nastier.
Imagine the resulting labor shortage if one-third of the world's people were to suddenly die. And consider its impact on property law. The cascade of litigation that resulted from the Black Death resulted in the basic legal framework we accept today. Norman Cantor, author of In the Wake of the Plague and quoted in Acocella's review, writes:
A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today ... would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law.
Sounds like a great movie. The country bumpkin from Geneva with his outlandish dress and an outlook one could only call positively medieval gets into Yale Law School and then graduates in six months (think The Paper Chase on adrenaline), going on to get the girl and hang out his shingle, not necessarily in that order.

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