Proposal preview

The many faces of lethal diseases: Epidemiological diversity and the differential economic effects of pre-industrial epidemic shocks

In recent times important books have subscribed to a view that the environment, warfare and biological hazards may have been significant sources of major economic transitions (Campbell 2016), and economic divergences in economic history (Alfani 2013). These contributions build on the idea that some shocks were so severe that they persistently altered the long-term trajectories of societies and economies. And rather than being intrinsically negative, some scholars have suggested that short-term sudden shocks such as disease and warfare, could also bring some pre-industrial societies long-term benefits – for example, reducing inequality (Alfani 2015), consolidating state formation (Tilly 1992), or creating a more favorable balance between land and people (Malanima 2012; Clark 2007; Voigtländer & Voth 2013).

In the proposed session we bring together several papers, based on new empirical research, that shed light on the structural economic consequences of plague during the pre-industrial period. The point of departure is that to persistently alter economic trajectories, the consequences of plague must be shown to induce realignments in the structure of the economy that persist over prolonged periods of time – as opposed to short-lived change followed by recovery towards the original economic structure. How and why plague may have such economic consequences remains little understood. Theoretically, realignments in the structure of an economy derive from changes in the sectoral composition of the economy; changes in the geographical spread, distribution, and composition of production factors labor and capital; changes in economic institutions; and from changes in regional patterns of economic specialization (e.g. Acemoglu 2009; Herrendorf et al. 2015). However, in the context of historical economic development, there are few systematic empirical studies that test these mechanisms at the regional level of aggregation where structural change emerges. Currently, the literature generally consists studies that focus on one particular mechanism of structural change, predominantly that of realignments in land-labor ratios or urbanization rates, and address these at the macro-level.

The papers in the proposed session add new empirical studies on the regional economic consequences of pre-industrial plague outbreaks in different world regions and, in the case of two papers, combine plague and warfare. The first step for all four papers is to provide clear evidence on geographical patterns of mortality to highlight variations within and across regions, and between different environments such as urban and rural ones. The second step is to assess the relation between these geographical differences and continuities and change in regional economic structures. The two studies on the combined effect of plague and war provide additional insights into the geographical coincidence of war-related plague outbreaks and war damage proper. Furthermore, the combined incidence of warfare and plague allows for systematic analysis into the differential effects of capital and labor shocks. The proposed session combines papers from Mamluk Egypt, pre-colonial Western Africa, and late-medieval and early modern Mediterranean and Northwest Europe. Accordingly, the proposed session provides new evidence on the economic consequences of plague in very different social, political and economic contexts.

References
Acemoglu, D., Introduction to Modern Economic Growth (Princeton, 2009).
Alfani, G., Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Basingstoke 2013).
— ‘Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: a long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)’, Journal of Economic History 75.4 (2015) 1058-1096.
Campbell, B., The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World, (Cambridge, 2017).
Clark, G., A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton, 2007).
Herrendorf, B., R. Rogerson & A. Valentinyi, ‘Growth and Structural Transformation’, in P. Aghion & S. Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth, vol. 2 (Amsterdam, 2014).
Malanima, P. ‘The Economic Consequences of the Black Death’, in E. Lo Cascio (ed.), L’impatto della “Peste Antonina” (Bari, 2012).
Tilly, C., Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990-1992 (Oxford, 1992).
Voigtländer, N. & H.-J. Voth, ‘The Three Horsemen of Riches: Plague, War, and Urbanization in Early Modern Europe’, Review of Economic Studies 80 (2013) 774-811.

Organizer(s)

  • Bram van Besouw Utrecht University b. vanbesouw@uu.nl the Netherlands
  • Daniel Curtis Leiden University d.r.curtis@hum.leidenuniv.nl the Netherlands

Session members

  • Guido Alfani, Bocconi University
  • Stuart Borsch, Assumption College
  • Tarek Sabraa, Ghent University
  • Gérard Chouin, William & Mary
  • Daniel Curtis, Leiden University
  • Bram van Besouw, Utrecht University

Discussant(s)

  • Tim Soens Antwerp University tim.soens@uantwerpen.be
  • Jan De Vries UC Berkeley devries@berkeley.edu

Papers

Panel abstract

Epidemic diseases had significant impact on premodern economic growth, distribution, and demographic behavior, yet these effects were not necessarily uniform. Epidemics could stimulate or retard economies. The question is why the effects could be so diverse across time and space. This session provides new empirical material on the varying demographic effects of epidemics, and how they contributed to spatial disparities in economic development. We focus on differing impacts between urban and rural environments, with specific attention paid to the mechanisms of rural-urban migration and to the interaction between warfare and disease. The papers covered include various areas of premodern Northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and West Africa.

1st half

The impact of plague in Italy and Europe during the seventeenth century

Guido Alfano

This paper focuses on the demographic and economic impact of the last large-scale plagues affecting Europe during the seventeenth century. It shows that in general, such late plagues affected much more severely the South than the North of the continent, also due to differences in the structure of mortality. From the point of view of the economic impact of plague, the paper will argue that the seventeenth-century epidemics might have acted as co-causes of the Little Divergence – or maybe even as the trigger, or “proximate cause”, of divergence itself. On the other side, the paper argues that the seventeenth-century plagues failed to produce the positive consequences –in terms of raising real wages, declining inequality, etc.– which we tend to associate with the fourteenth-century Black Death, which a sizeable part of the recent literature assumes as the prototypical benevolent “exogenous shock”.

This paper focuses on the demographic and economic impact of the last large-scale plagues affecting Europe during the seventeenth century. It shows that in general, such late plagues affected much more severely the South than the North of the continent, also due to differences in the structure of mortality. From the point of view of the economic impact of plague, the paper will argue that the seventeenth-century epidemics might have acted as co-causes of the Little Divergence – or maybe even as the trigger, or “proximate cause”, of divergence itself. On the other side, the paper argues that the seventeenth-century plagues failed to produce the positive consequences –in terms of raising real wages, declining inequality, etc.– which we tend to associate with the fourteenth-century Black Death, which a sizeable part of the recent literature assumes as the prototypical benevolent “exogenous shock”.

Charting the Population Effects of the Black Death throughout the Middle East

Stuart Borsch, Tarek Sabraa

In this paper we discuss our research that seeks to quantify mortality for the second plague pandemic in Egypt and other regions of the Middle East. (We have widened our horizons to include Syria, Iraq, and are now studying North Africa as well). We present here our findings as a discussion of the project’s feasibility, which includes the question of what data we can collect for mortality, how this data was assembled centuries ago, and how accurate that data is. We will cover the basics of our methods in the context of a new quantitative device that we have developed for the pre-modern Middle East – one that essentially studies “mortality in motion” – as will be explained below. Finally, we will discuss our adjusted data for major plague outbreaks the late Mamluk era.

In this paper we discuss our research that seeks to quantify mortality for the second plague pandemic in Egypt and other regions of the Middle East. (We have widened our horizons to include Syria, Iraq, and are now studying North Africa as well). We present here our findings as a discussion of the project’s feasibility, which includes the question of what data we can collect for mortality, how this data was assembled centuries ago, and how accurate that data is. We will cover the basics of our methods in the context of a new quantitative device that we have developed for the pre-modern Middle East – one that essentially studies “mortality in motion” – as will be explained below. Finally, we will discuss our adjusted data for major plague outbreaks the late Mamluk era.

Horsemen of ‘Riches’ or of ‘the Apocalypse’? Warfare and mortality in the seventeenth-century Low Countries

Bram van Besouw, Daniel Curtis

Using new data from burial records of 435 localities combined with a detailed spatial and tem- poral reconstruction of recurring warfare in the seventeenth-century Low Countries, we test the links between warfare and civilian mortality. We show that episodes of warfare were spatially linked to raised mortality but also that these were not homogeneous or universal. The direct mortality effect of warfare was rather local although localities at around 100 kilometers from a war event still experienced raised but limited mortality. One year lagged mortality was quite substantial even at intermediate distances suggesting a ‘ripple effect’, even though raised same- time mortality had a wider reach. Local mortality was as severe in the countryside as in urban centers, although at a larger distance, urban mortality diverges between affected large cities and unaffected smaller cities.

Using new data from burial records of 435 localities combined with a detailed spatial and tem- poral reconstruction of recurring warfare in the seventeenth-century Low Countries, we test the links between warfare and civilian mortality. We show that episodes of warfare were spatially linked to raised mortality but also that these were not homogeneous or universal. The direct mortality effect of warfare was rather local although localities at around 100 kilometers from a war event still experienced raised but limited mortality. One year lagged mortality was quite substantial even at intermediate distances suggesting a ‘ripple effect’, even though raised same- time mortality had a wider reach. Local mortality was as severe in the countryside as in urban centers, although at a larger distance, urban mortality diverges between affected large cities and unaffected smaller cities.

Plague and the making of the early Atlantic Portuguese slave trade in the Gulf of Guinea, 15th-16th c.

Gérard Chouin

In this paper, I explore the early Portuguese trade in slaves from the Bight of Benin to the Costa da Mina. Why were captives available for purchase in Ijebu and Benin from the late 1470s, while in high demand in the forests of Ghana? I suggest the response has to do with sociopolitical transformations in the Bight of Benin that unfolded in response to a demographic crisis that took place in the second part of the fourteenth century, as the result of the spread of the second plague pandemics in sub-Saharan Africa.

In this paper, I explore the early Portuguese trade in slaves from the Bight of Benin to the Costa da Mina. Why were captives available for purchase in Ijebu and Benin from the late 1470s, while in high demand in the forests of Ghana? I suggest the response has to do with sociopolitical transformations in the Bight of Benin that unfolded in response to a demographic crisis that took place in the second part of the fourteenth century, as the result of the spread of the second plague pandemics in sub-Saharan Africa.

2nd half