The Black Death and European Expansion

James Belich, current Beit Professor of Commonwealth and Imperial History, takes a deep breath, and argues that the Black Death was good for Europe.

Since 2001, there has been intense debate over whether the 'Black Death' of the mid-fourteenth century was rat-borne bubonic plague. With commendable sympathy for the under-rat, even the media have taken an interest: 'Rats Off Hook'. The debate now favours the bubonists, but has also had significant side effects. It has stimulated research into other key questions — how many people plague killed, what regions it struck, and how long it lasted — while at the same time distracting our attention from them.

The assumption that the Black Death killed 25%-33% of people in Western Europe, 1347-53, has long been accepted, but rather uneasily because this is so much higher than the death tolls of modern bubonic plague — a maximum of 3%. This is one factor behind a tendency among late medievalists to pass over the Black Death quite lightly, as a terrible but temporary catastrophe, without transformative after-effects. Behind this 'plague evasion' also lurks an understandable unease about 'exogenous variables', factors outside human agency, and about single-factor determinism. Yet research since 2004, into such things as manorial records of tenant turnover, strongly suggests that the Black Death toll was 50%, not 30%. In the mid-fourteenth century, the population of Western Europe suddenly halved. Furthermore, plague killed people, not bullion, infrastructure, land, or useful domestic animals. If the halving of people and the doubling of everything else does not have a potentially transformative effect, what does? At what point does due caution about single-factor determinism and exogenous variables become wilful avoidance of the elephant in the room?

The Black Death also struck Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Plausible statistics are rare here, but it is reasonable to assume a similar, or only slightly lower, mortality to that of Western Europe. The big death is generally assumed to have struck China, and perhaps India, as well. But the evidence for this has never been strong. A 2011 analysis, by George Sussman, concluded that: 'a close examination of the sources on the Delhi Sultanate and the Yuan Dynasty provides no evidence of any serious epidemic in fourteenth-century India and no specific evidence of plague among the many troubles that afflicted fourteenth-century China.' Timothy Brook also doubts that bubonic plague struck 14th century China.

Recent studies re-emphasize that the Black Death was the flagship of a fleet, as well as a single catastrophe. It was followed by some 30 major plague epidemics, plus many smaller outbreaks, ending around 1720 in Europe, and even later in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. None was as widespread and as lethal as the first strike, the Black Death itself. But some were as widespread or as lethal.

Deaths from famine, from Chroniques d'Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin (Netherlandish School, 15th century)

Deaths from famine, from Chroniques d'Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin (Netherlandish School, 15th century)

Medieval population statistics are notoriously dodgy, often amounting to a guess based on other guesses. But a 2010 computer-assisted analysis of a huge English database has developed a 'best guess' that looks unusually reliable. It indicates that the first strike alone reduced the English from 4.8 million in 1348 to 2.6 million in 1351, a decline of 46%. Further strikes reduced them to a nadir of 1.9 million in 1450, a decline on the 1348 figure of 60%. Recovery did not begin until after 1500.

England may not have been typical, but most of its exceptionality lay in the future and there is no reason to think that it was unusually susceptible to plague. French, Scandinavian, and Egyptian evidence also suggests that the terrible halving of 1350 lasted to about 1500, when populations at last began to grow again. Plague strikes continued restraining population growth into the eighteenth century.

The 'plague era' was also the period of European expansion, which flourished from the 1490s, but began earlier. By the mid fifteenth century, the Portuguese were probing down the coast of West Africa and had conquered Ceuta in Morocco; the Basques and English were chasing whales and cod deeper into the North Atlantic; and Novgorodians were chasing furs across the Urals into Asia. So we have a problem. Why should a plagued continent with half its normal population want or need to expand, and how was it capable of it?

Economic historians, a commendable exception to the rule of plague evasion, have long contested the economic effects of the Black Death. Until about 1990, `pessimists' were in the ascendant, but there has since been a turn to `optimism'. It seems almost inhuman to posit a silver lining in a cloud as terrible as the Black Death, but it seems there was one. Per capita shares of everything suddenly doubled. Real wages increased substantially, labour inputs into arable farming were therefore reduced, and productivity per acre may have fallen. But there were more horses, more iron for tools, and more fertile land, as grain growing was abandoned in marginal areas, so productivity per worker increased. There was a labour-saving shift from `corn to horn'. 'The shift to pastoral agriculture during the fourteenth century has been documented across Europe.' Relative urbanisation may also have increased. Deaths from early plague strikes were similar in town and country, but the former benefited from rural immigration. Interest rates declined, regional specialisation and trade increased, at first per capita, and then, remarkably enough, in aggregate — before the beginnings of population recovery. Demand for luxuries and 'comforts' increased in the fifteenth century. Spice imports went up, as did textile, sugar, cured fish, and hopped beer trades. Increased circulation had its downside. This is the century in which we begin to see widespread epidemics of influenza, typhus, and smallpox, as though plague was not enough.

There was also a sharp increase in the use of three inanimate sources of power: from human and animal powered milling to water milling; from oared ships to sail-only ships; and from bows to guns. This was no `medieval industrial revolution'; there were few new inventions and human muscle was still required. The main game in the post-plague European political economy became 'man-powering': getting other people to work or fight for you by hook or by crook. The slave trade revived; free migration increased; and what I call 'crew regions' developed.

Crew regions were coastal or mountainous regions in which grain growing was such a struggle that it was abandoned after the Black Death, when imports became more reliable. Such regions then turned to pastoralism or some other less labour intensive activity. As populations began to creep back up, as early as 1450 in a few places, the restructured local economy could not absorb the extra labour. Where such regions had martial or maritime traditions, the surplus became 'crewmen': soldiers in someone else's army, or sailors in someone else's fleet. Swiss mercenaries are the classic example. Other crew regions included Scotland, Cornwall, Southern Norway, Brittany, Gascony, northern Spain and northern Portugal.

If we draw these strands together, as some Europeans did at the time, we get what amounts to an expansion kit: a package of traits, techniques, and trajectories that facilitated and encouraged long-range spread. Demand for cod, whales, and furs; bullion; spices, slaves and sugar-lands increased. Sailing ships mounting improving cannon; handguns (which required far less training than bows); and the art of cannon-proof fortification; all merged if not emerged in response to the post-plague labour crisis. All were portable ways of saving lives or saving labour and they permitted the projection of power by small crews, who were now available and inured to risk by plague. The expansion kit included biological weapons. Unlike plague, which burned itself out in 40 days if isolated on a ship, sailing ships could transfer typhus, smallpox, and influenza across oceans.

This picture of plague-triggered western European expansion needs at least two reality checks. First, it is easy to exaggerate its effects before 1800. Even in the Americas, where locals had few metal tools, no guns, and were vulnerable to the new diseases, resistance was stiff, and European `empire' was often nominal. Horses were an important initial advantage, but soon went feral and were used by some Amerindian peoples (Sioux, Comanche, Araucanian, and Mapuche) to build their own empires, which remained independent of Europeans as late as the 1870s. In Africa and Asia, European expansion was more a matter of trade diaspora than empire, though its merchants were unusually violent. Territorial domains were few and small; European presence consisted rather of trading posts dependent on local allies; coastal forts; and offshore islands. These were of no great concern to Mughal, Ming or Qing Empires. But they did enable Europeans to muscle into Asian and African trades, and acquire more gold, slaves and spices more cheaply. It also enabled them to reshuffle biota across the globe, including people; to grow Asian crops on conquered American land using enslaved African labour.

Our second reality check concerns the fact that Western Europe was not plague's only victim/beneficiary. Expansionism also surged in Eastern Europe and Islam from 1350. Ottomans and Russians adopted guns with alacrity. Russians lacked large sailing ships until the late seventeenth century, but they did have gunboats. Unlike their Muslim neighbours Cossacks, the key Russian crew, were boatmen as well as horsemen. On the Black and Caspian Seas, and on Siberian rivers, Cossack boats carried 50 men and two or three small cannon, and in Siberia they faced opponents without firearms, some of whom were also vulnerable to new diseases. The Russian grip on Siberia, which comprises 40% of Asia's landmass, was initially light, though profitable in terms of furs, but like the Americas, it eventually became an important region of Neo-European settlement.

Ottoman also lacked galleons, in their case until the late 18th century, but their forts too were hard to take, their 'man powering' skills exceptional, and their slave trade massive — involving millions of Europeans as well as black Africans. Their guns and gun galleys were as good as any. `Portugal and the Ottoman Empire led the world in cannon technology at the beginning of the sixteenth century.' Ottoman expansion penetrated sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, as well as acquiring a large chunk of Europe. Mughal, Moroccan, and Omani long-range conquests could also be included in this `Early Modern Islamic Expansion', mirroring that of Europe. For the period 1400-1700, what we have is not West European expansion, but West Eurasian expansion. Is it coincidence that this was the time, and the sub-global world, in which the Black Death and its after-strikes took place?


Balliol College