Life after Death: How the Plague Made Modern Europe

Article excerpt

ASK SOMEONE TO identify the foundations of modern Western civilization, and expect to hear the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. But as watershed periods in the development of Europe, all three may pale in comparison to the Black Death. According to economists Nico Voigtlander and Hans-Joachim Voth, the 14th-century plague--which wiped out between one-third and one-half of the continent's population--may have been the factor most responsible for producing European prosperity.

The question Voigtlander and Voth take on in an article for the Review of Economic Studies has long vexed historians: How did Europe go from a global backwater around 1400--defined by political fragmentation, poverty, and widespread illiteracy--to the most prosperous region the world had ever known by the dawn of the 18th century?

It wasn't primarily new ideas or technology, the authors argue--it was the plague. According to their logic, incomes should fall as populations rise, barring a major increase in available resources. Conversely, when a population decreases due to war or disease, incomes go up as there's more available land and labor becomes scarce.

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The effect is usually temporary. But the population shock of the Black Death was so dramatic that it caused a permanent increase in incomes--an estimated 30 percent in Western Europe between 1500 and 1700. …