Book Review: A Global History of the Black Death

Yves here. Experts have pointed out that the level of fatalities during the Black Death were so high in many parts of Europe so as to produce durable improvements in the working conditions of both the unskilled and craftsmen. Labor shortages will do that. A new book by James Belich on the medieval pandemic argues that it had even bigger effects, including propelling Europe’s rise.

By Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing editor at The New Republic. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among other publications. Originally published at Undark

The headlines in mid-June were unequivocal. “Ground zero for the Black Death finally found after 600 years,” one read. The news that researchers, primarily from Scotland and Germany, had identified northern Kyrgyzstan as the origin point for the medieval plague garnered attention around the world. “Our study puts to rest one of the biggest and most fascinating questions in history and determines when and where the single most notorious and infamous killer of humans began,” one of the scientists said.

One had to read the fine print to learn the qualifications of the claims. The study, published in Nature, relied on a small sample size, and there needsto be data on more places, individuals, and times before this discovery can be considered conclusive. Nothing is put to rest yet.

BOOK REVIEW“The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe,” by James Belich (Princeton University Press; 640 pages).

James Belich’s new book, “The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe,” shows the depth and longevity of the controversy over the sources and impacts of an era-defining scourge. Belich, an Oxford University historian, suggests that what is now known as the Black Death was so consequential that its effects equal those of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Renaissance. It’s a staggering implication, but he makes a decent case for it in this bold, tremendously researched work. From illustrating the plague’s effects globally to showing how central it was to Europe’s ascension, Belich demonstrates that the medieval pandemic influenced many aspects of human life.

Once called the Great Death or the Great Plague, the pandemic lasted hundreds of years and was so deadly that it is still popularly referred to simply as the Plague. “The Black Death Pandemic, beginning in 1345, persisted for more than three centuries and involved about 30 major epidemics in all,” writes Belich. What’s more, it “did not always behave like the modern pandemic,” he writes further on. “It killed far more people, for one thing.” Belich’s book implicitly underscores that, compared to the devastation of the plague, Covid-19 is relatively insignificant.

Just how many deaths was the Black Death responsible for? Despite centuries of debate on the subject, there is no consensus. The common belief is that the first wave killed between 25 percent and 33 percent of Western Europeans. (The historian Barbara Tuchman advanced the one-third estimate in her best-selling 1978 book about the 14th century, “A Distant Mirror.”) Belich suggests that the number was far higher. In the first strike alone, the population of Western Europe was cut in half, he writes, citing studies about the death rates in England, France, Italy, and Scandinavia. Many places didn’t return to their pre-plague population levels for some 250 years. (Despite his claims, the true extent of the toll is still widely contested.)

He also suggests that the plague wreaked similar havoc in Eastern Europe and the Islamic world, marshaling data from academic sources showing that it devastated northern Russia, Hungary, Istanbul, Syria, and Iraq. “The World the Plague Made” is greatly strengthened by these transnational and transcultural perspectives, which allow for broader conclusions and generalizations than most accounts that favor a handful of Western European lands.

Many aspects of the plague are still contested. The controversy begins in the book’s opening pages, in which Belich recounts the debate over its nature. The standard perspective was that it was a bubonic plague, whose pathogen is common in rodents. Scholars whom Belich calls “anti-bubonists” (he enjoys fashioning neologisms) revised this perspective in the 21st century, but he rejects the revisionists’ claims, writing that “since 2010, the ‘bubonists’ have struck back decisively.” He cites research showing that scientists found the bubonic plague’s pathogen at 10 different Black Death burial sites in various countries. Evidence derived independently from graves excavated in London in 2013 showed the same thing.

He writes that “rodent species are the villains,” and points to evidence for grain-loving black rats aboard cross-coastal ships as key to the plague’s spread. But Belich arrives at this by linking a series of assumptions that, on their own, are reasonable, but become more questionable when compounded. He says an outbreak jumping to humans from rodents that co-existed with populations would likely have infected far more people than one coming directly from wild rodents acting alone, for instance. He then argues that, for the plague to spread as quickly as it did, the first infected settlement would likely have been connected with other areas via trade, and “a byname for the black rat was ‘ship rat,’” making it a probable suspect. “One can overstate this case,” he admits, but he pursues it nonetheless. However logical such inferences may be, they are hardly conclusive.

After reviewing quarrels over the plague’s origins, Belich proceeds to his primary concern: the rippling impact of the Black Death on the world. In his telling, the plague’s massive population shift influenced everything from increased book production to “changes in shipping technology, and warfare.” He even suggests it may have led to the invention of racism as we know it today, because “it is only from 1400 that we see hints of the notion that vice and inferiority were innate in one’s ancestry.” He acknowledges, however, that “even I am not certain plague was behind this shift.”

In Belich’s view, what made the plague different from other major historical events and catastrophes was that, while it decimated the human population, it left the material world untouched. It “doubled the average amount per person of everything,” from horses to housing, he writes. For a time, this meant more resources for survivors and greater access to luxury goods, better living conditions, and higher wages for workers.

Belich notes that he is not the first to argue on behalf of the plague’s long-term consequences. But no other scholar seems to have amassed such huge troves of data in showing such a strong causal link between the plague and Europe’s expansion into Asia, Latin America, and North America. It’s certainly hard to think of another book that has amassed mountains of scholarship in service of this thesis. In the valuation of “The World the Plague Made,” absent a plague, Western countries might never have ascended to global power. Absent a plague, there might not have been imperialism or colonization, nor a United States or trans-Atlantic slave trade. While Belich by no means claims the Black Death was the deciding factor in those fates, he argues persuasively that it was a powerful influence. Alongside excess cash and more mobile labor, the desire for “exotic and extractive goods” led Europeans to travel abroad for new resources; many never came back.

Scholars have long attributed the rise of the West to a variety of institutional, cultural, and technological factors. Belich believes these views are “suspiciously flattering” to Europe, implying that the West rose to prominence because it was superior to other continents, cultures, and civilizations. But he arguably goes too far into the other direction, proclaiming that virtually every major historical and social development from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century was influenced in some way by the plague.

Throughout his account, Belich offers hypotheses, conjectures, and suggestions, repeatedly writing that he suspects something to be true or that something may be accurate. But this may be inevitable when trying to make claims for a period for which there is comparatively little documentation and much disagreement.

It’s doubtful that Belich expects all his claims to be accepted, even quipping that being “usefully wrong” is “this book’s default aspiration.” This isn’t a narrative history, but one that navigates through huge amounts of research and scholarly disputes to provide fresh interpretations of historical events. Readers will come away with a broadened understanding of a formative period in European and global history. And they will be hard-pressed to see the plague as anything other than instrumental in the making of the modern world. As Belich writes, “‘Revolution’ may be an overused term, but if the sudden halving of people and the doubling of everything else is not potentially revolutionary, what is?”

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I think a crucial difference between the bubonic plague and other infectious diseases is that it left the survivors reasonably healthy, and in general was more likely to kill the older and already weak. Other plagues (such as smallpox) often left survivors with long term health problems (sound familiar?) or disproportionately hit the young and otherwise healthy (TB and syphilis). This is why I think its reasonable to argue that the bubonic plague was uniquely beneficial in the long term, perhaps specifically in Europe where there may have been more ‘fixed assets’ to benefit the survivors, especially where animal husbandry meant that survivors had lots more meat and milk available, so a lack of labour for growing cereals would have been less important.

    The best ‘test’ for the impact of diseases is often on relatively isolated island populations. We know that Japan was hit with regular waves of smallpox over its history, often with devastating impacts. I’m not aware of any evidence of subsequent economic growth, although it certainly changed the culture. What would make Japan different from Europe of course is that agriculture was mostly crop based and labour intensive than European grazing or mixed systems, so the survivors may not have been able to benefit from having more land per person. The key limitation on rice growing is not land availability, but manpower.

    The record in Ireland is fuzzier, but the evidence from lake pollen sampling (where you can map the ebb and flow of agriculture) and the medieval annals (which go back to around the 6th Century AD), is that often a huge percentage of the population would be taken away by epidemics, as the populations would have had minimal natural protection. But again, I’m not aware of any evidence of economic growth, although undoubtedly survivors would have had more grazing and cows available per person. Probably a much weaker urban system meant that there was no obvious focus for economic or technical growth.

  2. Adam Eran

    Charles Mann’s accounts of the pre-Columbian New World note that disease played an enormous role in the conquest of these continents. Military conquest played a role too, but Old World diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, but also smallpox and measles were largely responsible for reducing native populations by 90%. Since humans are a “keystone species” in these ecosystems, the “vacant” West, and perhaps even the rise of the buffalo may be attributed to this massive population reduction.

    The use of Africans with immunity to these diseases also played a part. Africans could survive where the disease vector mosquitoes did well (from the Mason-Dixon line to the northern border of Argentina), so they could do the cotton farming, and slavery thrived. The slaves were not much interested in preserving the fertility of the soil, so cotton farming in particular was a variant of slash-and-burn, requiring new land once the old soil was played out. The need to expand slavery’s territory was one very large motive for the American Civil War.

    In the first successful Black revolution, Haitians could defeat French soldiers not because they were better fighters, but because the French couldn’t stay healthy.

    So yes, the effects of disease resonate throughout history.

    1. Carolinian

      Right. During mosquito season SC’s rice planters would go north and leave the agriculture to their overseers and disease resistant slaves. In some ways early US history follows the above narrative in that labor was always in shortage and therefore well paid (or enslaved). Discussion of population growth as a cause of our current economic and environmental problems has become somewhat taboo, but back in the 1960s people were as obsessed with population control as they now are with global warming. The current fad to blame everything on irrational race hatred ignores the practical reality of competition for resources –something that undoubtedly needs to be more thought and talked about.

  3. Joe Well

    Apparently, there was a final outbreak of Black Death in Glasgow in 1900.

    History repeating:

    >>One doctor complained in the British Medical Journal that concerns over the economic effects of an outbreak had impeded official responses:

    ‘It is a common fate of the medical man who first suggests the probability of plague in a community to be voted a public nuisance who ought to be chloroformed beyond the final stage of safe anaesthesia, for plague means so much to the mercantile and maritime interests of the town or city in which it may appear.’

    1. digi_owl

      Gets me thinking of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, where the commercial interests of opening a spa leads to one person being vilified for trying to inform the public that the water source is contaminated.

  4. John Emerson

    “Plague is rare in Oregon, with only eight human cases diagnosed since 1995 and no deaths, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The plague usually occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, most commonly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado”.

    Plague (yersinia pestis ) isn’t extinct but rarely rises to plague proportions. There are scattered cases wherever there are rodents (especially burrowing rodents as I remember). Cases in the US are mostly in isolated areas, which I suppose is one reason why cases are isolated. Public health measures and pest control are presumably others. Maybe there’s a hereditary immunity?

    I don’t know these thing and am just speculating. Anyone know better than me?

    1. Cat Burglar

      A rodent biologist acquaintance told me that plague in the western US was likely brought by ship rats during early trans-Pacific trade, and infected rodents up to an eastern geographic limit called “the plague line” — a place at about the longitude of Kansas. A friend working as a firefighter in the eastern Sierra Nevada always delighted in the fiery little chickarees that lived near the station, and was sad to learn from the head of the crew that most of the little chipmunk-like animals would be dead of the plague by fall. The only person I have met that has had the disease was rapidly cured by antibiotics, but the experience was very unpleasant.

  5. John R Moffett

    Unfortunately, I would not be surprised if some leaders in the West see a similar way out of “inflation”. If they could just significantly lower global population, there would be more left over for the survivors. This would explain, in part, the West’s obsession with not stopping the transmission of Covid, or the new obsessions of starting WWIII with Russia and China simultaneously. Very often, when wealthy people in charge of things hear a take on history like this one, they come away thinking of it as an instruction manual, rather than a cautionary tale.

    1. Carolinian

      I’m no fan of the wealthy, but overpopulation has always been more of a threat to the poor. Whereas capitalism thrives on population growth. It makes the reserve army of the unemployed that much larger and cheaper to employ not to mention supplying a higher demand for their products. The people who used to talk about this were liberals. However the sad 20th cent history of eugenics and crackpot versions of Darwinism seem to have put the stymie. Current thinking seems to be that population growth will naturally slow if not fast enough to save the polar bears.

  6. Raymond Sim

    I’ve been reading about Orthopoxvirus recently, as well as the recent spate of articles on Yersinia pestis and I find striking and somewhat suprising (to me at any rate) parallels between the hypothesized origins of smallpox and plague.

    These most calamitous examples of zoonosis apparently came, not in the form of organisms that were completely novel to humans, but rather ones having long association with us and our animal entourages.

    During the Neolithic, in North America and much of Eurasia (And perhaps elsewhere too, those are the regions I’m aware of.) peoples, who were still technically hunter-gatherers, began building large sites which seem to have been the focus of pilgimmage over large geographic regions. It seems to me this might have had a big effect on the evolution of human pathogens, shifting the balance between transmission and coexistence in favor of transmission. Intriguingly many of these sites, in widely separated places, seem to have been ritually ‘decommissioned’ and more or less abandoned. Maybe that was the first era of pandemics.

  7. Matthew G. Saroff

    I’m inclined to think that the subvariant of the Y. Pestis was likely closely related to the marmot variant, which has an affinity for lungs and aerosol transmission.

    What is interesting is that the plague progressed so quickly, over 30 km a day in some cases, which implies a vector in addition to rodents.


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