Throughout the fourteenth century AD/eighth century H, waves of plague swept out of Central Asia and decimated populations from China to Iceland. So devastating was the Black Death across the Old World that some historians have compared its effects to those of a nuclear holocaust. As countries began to recover from the plague during the following century, sharp contrasts arose between the East, where societies slumped into long-term economic and social decline, and the West, where technological and social innovation set the stage for Europe’s dominance into the twentieth century. Why were there such opposite outcomes from the same catastrophic event?
In contrast to previous studies that have looked to differences between Islam and Christianity for the solution to the puzzle, this pioneering work proposes that a country’s system of landholding primarily determined how successfully it recovered from the calamity of the Black Death. Stuart Borsch compares the specific cases of Egypt and England, countries whose economies were based in agriculture and whose pre-plague levels of total and agrarian gross domestic product were roughly equivalent. Undertaking a thorough analysis of medieval economic data, he cogently explains why Egypt’s centralized and urban landholding system was unable to adapt to massive depopulation, while England’s localized and rural landholding system had fully recovered by the year 1500.
Some reviews The Black Death by Sean Martin on Amazon
Borsch’s comparison is based on the different kinds of ownership of land in the two societies in the 14th century, the time when the Black Death struck Europe and the Middle East. “In contrast to their Egyptian counterparts, English landholders had a much more direct economic interest in the welfare and management of their estates.” The basic reason for this was that the English landholders could pass their land on to their heirs. By contrast, the large majority of Egyptian landowners were “specialized warriors known as Malmuks” who could not pass their land on to their heirs; and even their ownership of it was tenuous in the factional conflicts and intrigues in Egypt at the time. Borsch finds the answer to his main question of why England managed to recover economically after the Black Death while Egypt did not in this difference in land ownership. A considerable proportion of each country’s population, including those who worked the land, succumbed to the plague; which some historians have likened to a nuclear holocaust in the areas it afflicted. England’s system of land ownership was the decisive factor in its economic recovery in the years after the Black Death. In order to keep their land productive and thus valuable, England’s landowners were obliged to adapt to the new power the surviving workers had gained in the agrarian economy with the loss of so many to the disease. The Malmuks in Egypt, on the other hand, had scant incentive to make any adaptations to hold up the value of land they had only a precarious ownership of. Borsch draws out the economic, social, and to a lesser degree the historical effects of this fundamental difference between English and Egyptian landownership in the late medieval period. An assistant professor teaching Islamic and Middle Eastern history as well as history of the world and Western civilization, he has the right learning for this work.
A very well researched and well written look at historical events in two societies that one might not think of comparing. While I had some familiarity with the history of England during the period covered by this book, I was quite unfamiliar with the history of Egypt during the same period.
The author has covered not just the history, but also the social and economic structure of the societies, and how those differing structures affected the ruling classes reactions to the massive societal changes brought on by the Black Death. The Mamlukes, who ruled Egypt in the late medieval period, were a rather uniquely structured ruling class (I don’t think there was anything equivalent in European history) and this had ramifications in regards to their response to the events engendered by the Black Death (which the author does an excellent job of explaining).
The writing and research is on a level that it really justifies a second read through (which I should do soon).