The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

By Stuart J. Borsch | Go to book overview

THREE
THE IMPACT OF THE PLAGUES
ON THE RURAL ECONOMY
OF EGYPT

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 time, the peasants in severely depopulated villages had to work much harder just to keep the local irrigation system running at minimal efficiency. These two factors together, increased surplus-extraction from crops and more intensive irrigation work, led to an effective increase in rent in the absence of any overt increases in rent rates.

Yet how did the landlords respond to the drop in rural revenue and rural labor supply? Did they lower rents? Here we need to return to the dynamics of the landholding system. The Mamluk landholding system had characteristic features of both centralization and decentralization. It was centralized in terms of its relative power vis-à-vis rural labor. The Circassian, urban culture of the Mamluks, the filter provided by their bureaucracies, the lack of regular managerial contact between landholder and estate, and, most particularly, the expeditionary nature of military responses to rural rent arrears or rural rebellion, all meant that Mamluk landholders presented a united front in the face of rural labor demands. In this sense, the economic status of landholders can be viewed as a form of “collective bargaining” vis-à-vis peasant communities. Although cohesive village units might have presented a united front against landholder

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