The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 “the East” and revisited generation after generation in waves of epidemics. Bewildered communities watched in dismay as nature took the place of humanity's civilized infrastructure. They drew together in fear as small hamlets disappeared from the map and villages dwindled to ghosts of their former selves. People fled in panic to the largest cities, only to find that the former epicenters of civilization were themselves shrinking, as once-crowded neighborhoods and bustling marketplaces fell into decay. Others held out in their familiar rural settings, helplessly trying to confront the powerful forces of nature as their small numbers grew too few to resist the oncoming wave of indigenous plants and forests that their ancestors had once cleared. The natural environment, aided by a small rod-shaped bacterium, had returned with a vengeance to reclaim its former dominance.

A ship arrived in Alexandria. Aboard it were thirty-two merchants and a
total of three hundred people-among them traders and slaves. Nearly all
of them had died. There was no one alive on the ship, save four of the trad
ers, one slave, and about forty sailors. These [forty-five] survivors [soon]
died in Alexandria.

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