The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

By Stuart J. Borsch | Go to book overview
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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 of Yersinia 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 why the plagues had such a particularly disastrous economic impact on Egypt. This study has proposed an answer to that question through the lens of comparative history. As Robert Brenner pointed out in his contentious (and, see below, at times erroneous) examination of European economies and their relation to demography, “The obvious difficulty with this whole massive structure [i.e., a fixation on demography] is that it simply breaks down in the face of comparative analysis. Different outcomes proceeded from similar demographic trends at different times and in different areas of Europe.”1 Or, as he further contends, reactions to changing demography resulted in “opposite outcomes—depending on the social-property relationships and balances of class forces.”2 Where English landholders failed in their efforts to collectively confront a scarce rural labor market, Egyptian landholders triumphed brilliantly. The consequences were a disaster for Egypt's rural economy, the backbone of its economic power. Egypt was left in ruins by the time the Ottomans turned it into a province in 1517. It is important here to critique a central part of Brenner's thesis in his fa


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