*The World the Plague Made*

The author is James Belich, and the subtitle is The Black Death and the Rise of Europe.  This is a fascinating but not entirely persuasive book.  In any case it is one of the books to read this year.  Here is a summary sentence:

This book has argued that plague’s dire crucible triggered the Fourth Divergence.

My main worry is simple, namely that the author does not demonstrate his main proposition that the Black Death significantly boosted living standards where it hit.  That might be true, and I would say I don’t have a view of my own view on the matter one way or the other.  (Here is a recent and very useful survey indicating the positive effects were mostly short-run.)  But I would need to see a more careful presentation of wage data, and the author too frequently invokes a) massive literature citations, and b) a pat “half the people, so twice the per capita wealth” argument.  Losing up to half the people is highly disruptive, including for the ability to exploit material resources.  And is it per capita wealth that matters, or income?  Matters for what and for which income classes?  I needed to see much more on this.

Anyway, if you buy into the main premise (or even if you don’t) what follows is interesting throughout.  Belich takes on exactly when and why various plagues stopped circulating, and whether insufficiency of rats was a major reason.  Here is one interesting passage:

The rise of rat resistance — and the decline of it — seems like to have played a major role in the decline of plague — and the exceptions to it — throughout West Eurasia.  But as we saw in the last chapter, plague history increasingly diverged regionally from 1500.  Epidemics ended in Western Europe by 1720 and Eastern Europe by 1780.  Major strikes continued to afflict the Muslim South until about 1840.  the end of plague is conventionally attributed to human agency, notably the growing power of states to run effective quarantine measures, public health regulations, and border controls.  Other factors include a shift from wood to brick and tile, which was less rat-friendly , and to cheaper arsenic in the 1720s, which was not rat-friendly at all.  The decline of wooden houses and thatched roofs, ideal black rat environments, and their replacement by brick and tile varied by class, which may account for the trend toward higher casualties among common folk after 1500.

Belich then sheds some doubt on the public health measures argument, noting that Italy had bad plague outcomes in the 17th century, even though it had the best public health measures at the time.  No simple answer, but plenty of interesting discussion.

Another of my favorite sections of the book covered the difficulties at the time in persuading women to emigrate, and how that shaped colonial policies.  You also get the author’s take on the Persianate nature of the Mughal invasions, a lengthy account of how the plague shaped the settlement of Siberia, an optimistic take on the capabilities of peak Ottoman empire, how the fiscal state was Britain’s main innovation, how Britain manned its sea fleets from the Nordic countries, and much more.  You might say this is all too much, but who am I to complain?  I did find every page of the book substantive and interesting, even if I often felt the author was biting off more than he could chew.

So definitely recommended, though with caveats on the side of some of the actual conclusions.

Here are my previous posts on the work of James Belich.  In general he is someone whose books I always will read.


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