The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

By Stuart J. Borsch | Go to book overview

TWO
MORTALITY, IRRIGATION,
AND LANDHOLDERS
IN MAMLUK EGYPT

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 of Yersinia 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 less is known about the Black Death's mortality in Egypt. Michael Dols, in his pioneering study of the Black Death, has estimated through various accounts (funeral orations, coffin counts, and inheritance taxes) that at least a third of the population perished in the initial outbreak of the plague.2 Dols's figures for the major plague outbreak in 1429–1430 are particularly meticulous, and his calculated figure of over 90,000 dead in Cairo alone seems quite accurate. (Dols's calculated mortality figure actually coincides with the estimate given by Ibn Taghri-Birdi, a contemporary observer of the 1429–1430 outbreak.)3 Contemporary observers, both Egyptians and foreign travelers, give accounts of the initial plague and subsequent outbreaks that leave no doubt that it was viewed as a disease of uniquely devastating virulence, in both the cities and the countryside.4

It seems likely that the plague was every bit as catastrophic in rural areas as in urban ones. Contemporary witnesses report an extremely high mortality rate in the countryside, sometimes providing numbers that seem quite accurate, given the likely level of population in certain provinces.5 More importantly for the purposes of estimating rural mortality, the geography of Egypt suggests that the rural population would

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