The Black Death in Egypt and England

The Black Death in Egypt and England

STUART J. BORSCH
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/706170
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  • Book Info
    The Black Death in Egypt and England
    Book Description:

    Throughout the fourteenth century AD/eighth century H, waves of plague swept out of Central Asia and decimated populations from China to Iceland. So devastating was the Black Death across the Old World that some historians have compared its effects to those of a nuclear holocaust. As countries began to recover from the plague during the following century, sharp contrasts arose between the East, where societies slumped into long-term economic and social decline, and the West, where technological and social innovation set the stage for Europe's dominance into the twentieth century. Why were there such opposite outcomes from the same catastrophic event?

    In contrast to previous studies that have looked to differences between Islam and Christianity for the solution to the puzzle, this pioneering work proposes that a country's system of landholding primarily determined how successfully it recovered from the calamity of the Black Death. Stuart Borsch compares the specific cases of Egypt and England, countries whose economies were based in agriculture and whose pre-plague levels of total and agrarian gross domestic product were roughly equivalent. Undertaking a thorough analysis of medieval economic data, he cogently explains why Egypt's centralized and urban landholding system was unable to adapt to massive depopulation, while England's localized and rural landholding system had fully recovered by the year 1500.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79691-1
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A NOTE ON TRANSLITERATION
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. ONE INTRODUCTION: Plague and Methodology
    (pp. 1-23)

    We live in an age of steadily growing population and urban sprawl, with industrial growth continually encroaching on the few untouched pockets of our ecosystem, so it is hard for us to imagine our distant ancestors’ fear of nature as an encroaching predator. It is harder still for us to conceive of the terror and shock they experienced as urban centers shrank and cultivated fields slowly reverted to their natural states. Yet this was the predominant mood that gripped the survivors of the Black Death. Their numbers had been devastated by a mysterious and horrifying disease that had come from...

  6. TWO MORTALITY, IRRIGATION, AND LANDHOLDERS IN MAMLUK EGYPT
    (pp. 24-39)

    A discussion of the plague’s mortality in England is unnecessary here since numerous studies have analyzed the demographic impact of the plague in that region. Although scholars have long debated the level of population decline, recent studies seem to agree that roughly half the population of England succumbed to repeated outbreaks ofYersinia pestis.¹ England had a population of roughly six million before the Black Death, and repeated series of plague outbreaks lowered the population level to three million or less by the late fifteenth century. England’s population did not reach six million again until the early seventeenth century.

    Far...

  7. THREE THE IMPACT OF THE PLAGUES ON THE RURAL ECONOMY OF EGYPT
    (pp. 40-54)

    As the repeated plague epidemics moved from village to village, rural depopulation began to take its toll.¹ Many areas were left with insufficient labor to keep the local (baladi) dikes in working order.² When these dikes decayed, the Nile flood became harder to control, which in turn led to episodic parching or waterlogging of the village soil. These villages thus suffered from a substantial decline in the average yield per acre. And though yields declined, rents initially remained at the same level.³ Therefore, many peasants faced an increase in the rate of surplus-extraction on a local level. At the same...

  8. FOUR THE IMPACT OF THE PLAGUES ON THE RURAL ECONOMY OF ENGLAND
    (pp. 55-66)

    In contrast to their Egyptian counterparts, English landholders had a much more direct economic interest in the welfare and management of their estates. This was due to several key structural differences. England’s landholders retained their estates on a long-term basis, usually hereditarily, and therefore had a much longer financial time horizon, even if that horizon might seem short and inefficient by modern standards. Planning for the future revenue of their lands, even two or three years down the road, was long-term for Egyptians of the time. England’s landholders were far more involved in the economic management of their estates. Granted,...

  9. FIVE THE DINAR JAYSHI AND AGRARIAN OUTPUT IN ENGLAND AND EGYPT
    (pp. 67-90)

    Historians of Egypt have made several attempts to evaluate the overall output of Egypt’s agrarian economy before and after the Black Death. Yet there remain many unanswered questions, and some rather dramatic errors that need correction. This chapter will provide new answers to some of the mysteries. The analysis here will also pose new questions and attempt to restructure some of the methodological approaches to the economic history of Egypt.

    The 1315 cadastral survey (rawk) conducted by Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad provides us with an excellent starting point for the quantitative section of this study. Despite Heinz Halm’s outstanding work on...

  10. SIX PRICES AND WAGES: A REEVALUATION
    (pp. 91-112)

    Shifting the focus away from agrarian output and GDP to an analysis of prices and wages for Egypt and England will allow us to estimate relative changes in income per capita. The overall picture will also provide crucial information about the relative changes in the two agrarian economies.

    The data for prices and wages provided for Egypt and England is abundant in comparison with the other quantitative data assessed in this chapter. The price and wage “scissors” also stand in stark contrast to each other. Briefly put, the overall picture in England after the plagues is that grain prices dropped...

  11. SEVEN CONCLUSION
    (pp. 113-117)

    The great historical plague is usually associated with falling rents, falling grain prices, rising wages, and changes in landholding systems. Egypt did not follow this course of development. Egypt’s landholding structure, a substantial success before the attack ofYersinia pestis, determined a dramatically different outcome from the one depicted in most historical studies. Egypt’s rents increased, its grain prices rose, wages dropped precipitously, per capita incomes fell, and the landholding system stayed more or less intact. The outcome in Egypt stands out in dramatic relief when compared with that in England.

    No one has ever clearly answered the question of...

  12. APPENDIX THE MARGINAL PRODUCT OF LABOR RECONSIDERED
    (pp. 118-134)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 135-166)
  14. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 167-184)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 185-196)