Producers—large and small—might respond to this new situation. The demand for grain products fell with the fall in population; half the population will not eat twice the bread it had eaten even if the price falls in half (that is, the demand for such “necessities” as bread is relatively inelastic, or constant regard- less of price). The years after 1348 were therefore difficult for producers of grain, caught between higher labor costs and declining absolute demand for their prod- ucts. For some, the answer lay in the production of goods for which demand might be more elastic, goods that appealed to the new wealth and higher level of disposable income. And so in Spain and England the importance of pasture for wool increased. More land, proportionally, was also given over to crops from which drink could be made: barley for beer in England and Germany, grapes for wine in France, northern Italy, and southern Germany. More varied fruits and vegetables appeared, especially in France and Spain, while the demand grew for exotic substances such as sugar. Crops from which industrial materials came prospered: dyestuffs, flax and hemp, mulberry trees (for silkworms). Meanwhile, areas that had lived by the export of grain, such as Sicily and southern Italy, suffered hard times. Finally, the position of smallholding peasants in this changed market might be mixed; as subsistence farmers they benefited from lower land costs, but as producers for a market they might lose.
The Black Death and subsequent plague assaults may have eased the lives of surviving peasants in western Europe, making their land cheaper, increasing their wages, and decreasing the traditional labor services expected of them. But the general experience of the peasantry of eastern Europe should make us wary of the power of the plague as an overwhelming historical cause. At least in the- ory the same change in the positions of laborers and landlords occurred there, although it is possible that the plague’s incidence and hence mortality was lower in eastern Europe. Perhaps more eastern peasants survived, but that point remains speculative; certainly the position of the eastern landlords strengthened. They seized opportunities that made the east increasingly the supplier of large- scale agricultural products to the more developed western European economies. A different political milieu made it possible for landowners to tighten the bonds of serfdom on the large estates on which they pursued those profitable activities. Disease and its resulting depopulation is clearly not the single determinant of social, economic, and political change.