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.

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.


  • Bram van Besouw, Utrecht University, b., the Netherlands
  • Daniel Curtis, Leiden University,, the Netherlands

Session members

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

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Tim Soens, Antwerp University,
  • Jan De Vries, UC Berkeley,