The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study
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This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. A plausible hypothesis lies in the possibility that a strain of the bacterium had become isolated in a part of Central Asia where it had limited contact with humans and rats. An isolated human population in that part of Central Asia had developed taboos about rodent warrens, where the disease was endemic.
The train of logic is then as follows. This isolated strain of plague, cut off from contact with humans and rats, evolved over time, adapting to live in a local species of rodents. This species of rodent was not Rattus rattus , the black rat; more likely it was the Manchurian marmot. The evolutionary history of this strain of plague was such that, lacking contact with both humans and the black rat, it was subject to divergent evolution.
What this means is that random mutations, occurring naturally over time, experienced no evolutionary pressure to maintain equilibrium with the either the black rat or human populations. These mutations, cut off from any incentives to survive in their former hosts, were likely to make the disease far more lethal than the Y. What emerged in this isolated rodent population may have been a disease with a DNA structure that was simultaneously highly lethal, more easily transmissible, and yet similar enough to the unmutated strain to creep back into its former hosts, particularly the black rat.
That not all episodes of the Black Death were accompanied by an epizootic outbreak among rats may suggest that this strain was contagious among a wider range of animals, accounting for the death of livestock that some have attributed to anthrax. It is also possible that the disease could have been spread by the human flea, Pulex irritans , which would have provided for easier transmission. It should also be noted, in light of the rapid spread of the disease over such a wide area, that the rat flea can live for several months without feeding.
We still need an explanation for how humans made contact with this isolated rodent population and then spread this strain of Y. According to William McNeill, the Mongols established new trade routes that passed through the area. From there, traders and their potentially flea-infested cargoes carried the infection east, to China, and west, to the Mediterranean and Europe.
It seems quite possible that the mutant strain of Y. Perhaps the bacteria had even evolved to spread from human to human, not just in the form of the highly contagious pneumonic plague, but also as a bacillus that could be spread by the human flea. This does not seem to be the case with the modern version of the plague and Pulex irritans. This might also help explain why the disease spread to areas where shipborne rats were not widely found. It would certainly help explain why the disease was suddenly and universally lethal in the Old World. It should also be noted that there are a variety of other flea species that may have influenced the course of the Black Death, especially if that particular strain of Y.
Xenopsylla cheopis is not the only culprit that may have been involved. There are other fleas that can act as disease vectors, with varying levels of efficaciousness, among them Ceratophyllus fasciatus another European rat flea , Nosopsyllus fasciatus the northern rat flea , Xenopsylla astia a Southeast Asian rat flea , Xenopsylla vexabilis another Southeast Asian rat flea , and Stivalius cognatus. It should also be noted that Rattus rattus is certainly not the only disease host that is associated with plague-infected fleas. Other rat species, such as Rattus norvegicus , are also quite capable of acting as a source of transmission.
Even flies can act as vectors for the transmission of Y. These factors should be considered by historians attempting to explain the extremely high virulence of the fourteenth-century pandemic, especially if Y. Since rat fleas can survive for up to six months without feeding, they can carry plague bacteria over long distances, independent of rats. It would account for the appearance of plague in such isolated areas as Iceland and Greenland.
It might account for the appearance of the plague in areas such as the Khymer Empire in Cambodia, an irrigation society that collapsed at the time of the Black Death. This remains hypothetical, but any discussion of the impact of this civilizational disaster should include some explanation of its lethality. Whatever its origins were, it devastated China in the s, overwhelmed the Golden Horde in Russia, and swept on through the Mediterranean basin.
However tenable the above hypothesis might be, we know that the impact of the plague on disparate regions, such as the Middle East, was horrifically traumatic. Fleas in bundles of grain or other produce could have easily been transported across the long distances between Mongol trade stations to the Crimea. It seems likely that it also followed an overland trade route to Iraq. The grand scope of this pandemic cries out for further studies, particularly ones that focus on non-Western areas of the Old World, and, as I will argue, studies that use Western Europe, or parts of Western Europe, as focal points for comparison.
The critical question posed by this work concerns the survivors. How were their civilizations and economies changed by the pandemic? How did the survivors adapt, or fail to adapt, to dramatic depopulation? In many regions, survivors were unable to adapt to the traumatic changes in their surroundings and died from numerous manifestations of "secondary death.
Yet all of the survivors, from the walking dead to those fortunate enough to adjust, knew that their culture, their religion, their economy, and their social structure would never be the same. This study tells the story of those survivors. It asks why people in one region fell prey to a secondary death while those in another adapted and recovered from the trauma of the pandemic.
The question is answered through a comparison of Egypt and England, and the dramatic divergence in outcomes illustrates just how profound a role the Black Death played in the history of world civilizations. Comparing late-medieval Egypt and England is obviously not an easy task from any standpoint, linguistic, cultural, structural, or methodological. As I will detail below, many of the dissimilarities that appeared daunting at first could be reduced within the framework of an economic model.
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However, finding balancing sets of data posed an arduous task. Since viable statistics on any medieval or ancient economy can be hard to find, locating matching quantitative sets and then juxtaposing them in a methodologically sound framework is challenging. Economic data for late-medieval England is widely available. By contrast, the number of published sources and studies for Egypt is minuscule. This is especially true for Islamic Egypt, which has received far less attention than pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, or Byzantine Egypt.
Medieval Arabic chronicles are available, but they are mostly devoted to political events; in many cases, only a few valuable economic figures can be found in the midst of thousands of pages. Any economic historian working on medieval Egypt must be able to quickly scan these chronicles, reading with enough accuracy to pick out economic details that can be used either qualitatively or quantitatively. As I worked to reach this reading speed, a two-year research trip to Egypt provided me with the opportunity to attain fluency in colloquial Egyptian, a mandatory task for anyone who embarks on an in-depth exploration of the resources available in Cairo.
Not surprisingly, it was in Cairo that most of the data was collected and compiled. It was there that I was able to reevaluate the source material I had already been using and to explore new avenues of research. I was subsequently able to find the documents that I needed to match the sources for late-medieval England. Some of my most crucial discoveries came from the unpublished archives of Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments. These archives contain a large number of unpublished endowment deeds waqfiyyat. The waqfiyyat and accompanying endowed institutions waqf are analogous to mortmain in Europe.
The waqf contain full records of the pious endowments through which a donor would bestow assets e. On a grand scale, endowed institutions could be as vast as the enormous mosque-madrasa complex of Sultan Hasan, ruler of Egypt in the mid-fourteenth century. This towering structure encompasses a mosque, a tomb intended for the reigning sultan, and a vast maze of classrooms, separated into four sections, each one spiraling upward for some ten stories. Students were trained here in secular as well as religious subjects.
Parts of this school were exclusively devoted to scientific education, embracing areas such as astronomy and medicine, fields in which, before the plagues, Islamic science still surpassed that of Western Europe. Other endowed institutions were on a far smaller scale, ranging from local mosques to public fountains. The waqf are also divided into khayri philanthropic and ahli family endowments.
The revenues of the former were immediately invested in the charitable institutions, whereas the revenues of family waqf were divided in such a fashion that some or all of the revenue went to the family of the donor until the last descendants of the family had died, at which point the entire revenue would be transferred to the eleemosynary institution. The waqf were endowed in perpetuity, a boon to historians and archaeologists, as both the properties and the original records were much more likely to survive the six centuries of urban transformation in Cairo that left so few of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century palaces and grandiose residential structures intact.
The deeds for these endowments contain a wealth of information, from the details of the endowed structure and its administration to the sources of revenue and revenue extraction. The value of these archives for historians of Egypt cannot be understated. They proved invaluable for this project; without them many of the intricacies of the Egyptian economic system would have remained impossible to analyze.
Although the endowments deeds were vital for my research, the bulk of the information for this project nevertheless came from sources, such as narrative chronicles, more familiar to most Islamic historians. Each historian approaches these sources with his or her own agenda, and given the relative paucity of scholars in the field of medieval Islam, there remains a vast amount of information that has not been scrutinized in detail.
The narrative chronicles are supplemented by other valuable resources. Chancery manuals are one example. Written as handbooks for state officials to use as a reference for the complexities of state administration, these resemble encyclopedias and contain valuable information covering a vast array of subjects. For the purposes of this research project, they were particularly useful for analyzing the landholding system. Many other sources from the fourteenth and fifteenth century were also used in this study, and all of this material was supplemented with secondary studies by Egyptian and foreign scholars.
In the process of collecting data, I solved a number of mysteries and answered several unresolved questions about the economic history of Egypt. A few of these findings are worth mentioning at the outset. I was able to discover the exact value of the dinar jayshi a unit of account and, consequently, to extract solid quantitative statistics from Egypt's land survey in order to determine Egypt's land revenue before the plagues.
I then analyzed an informative Ottoman survey of Egypt conducted in This made it possible for me to establish reliable approximations for the value of Egypt's agrarian revenue after the plagues. Most importantly, I studied the Mamluk landholding structure in detail, mapping out a complicated system that had not been accurately synthesized by previous scholars. The first two of these research findings, the value of the dinar jayshi and an in-depth analysis of the Ottoman land survey, formed a crucial part of the quantitative aspect of this study.
One of the most important elements of my research was to determine, within a reasonable degree of certainty, how Egypt's economic output had been changed by the plagues. Because the vast bulk of Egypt's gross domestic product GDP was composed of agricultural commodities, the initial efforts of this study were aimed at ascertaining the direction and extent of change in the agrarian economy. At first, I thought that the decline in Egypt's agrarian output had been analyzed and quantified by previous scholarly investigation.
However, it soon became clear to me that the figures used by historians had not been carefully examined. The direction and extent of change in Egypt's agrarian economy had been based on two data points, one before the onset of the plagues and one well after the Egyptian population had reached its nadir Yet both of these data points had been established only as approximate guesses, leaving one uncertain not only about the extent of Egypt's economic decline, but even whether such a decline had actually occurred.
This was the situation I faced five years ago, at the start of my work on this project. The first of these data points, a land survey, is a highly promising source of detailed quantitative information, yet its utility for scholars has been handicapped by several elements of uncertainty. The most important of these was the ambiguity surrounding the dinar jayshi.
Historians have previously used only rough approximations or guesses for the value of this currency. Because the value of the dinar jayshi remained a mystery to scholars, the exact value of the survey, upon which it was based, remained a mystery as well. This study provides a definitive value for the dinar jayshi. Chapter 5 will show precisely how much the dinar jayshi was worth and, equally important, exactly how its value was manipulated by the upper-caste Mamluks of Egypt and the bureaucrats who carried out their policies in the rural arena. By examining the origins of the dinar jayshi in the Ayyubid period and analyzing its development through the Mamluk period down to the Ottoman period, I was able to demonstrate how the dinar jayshi really worked.
It was a unit of account that operated on two different levels, a "dual usage" currency that functioned both for extracting revenue and for making payments to soldiers. Having discovered the exact value of the dinar jayshi, I was then able to use the land survey to full effect. The revenue values of the survey can be translated into precious-metal currencies or a fixed "basket" of agricultural goods.
Hence, the first data point, , is no longer a source of ambiguity: it can now be used as an exact measure of Egypt's agricultural wealth before the onset of the plagues. Finding an approximate value for the second data point Egypt's post-plague land revenue , involved less original-source research than in-depth analysis of published sources that had not been combed for their full potential.
In , Stanford Shaw translated a late sixteenth-century Ottoman survey of Egyptian land revenue from Turkish into English. This survey gave revenue figures for each province in Egypt. Using this source to double-check the figures from and fix a value for Egypt's agrarian output posed many challenges.
Most difficult was trying to ascertain the level of surplus-extraction rent gathered by the Ottoman officials. Without this information, the revenue could not be converted into a figure for agrarian output. Shaw's extensive study of the Ottoman administrative and financial system, though valuable in many respects, was riddled with quantitative errors. After a long process of analyzing and comparing sources for Ottoman Egypt, I was able to correct Shaw's errors and determine a range of values for land rent.
Once this was done, the Ottoman survey became comprehensible from a macroeconomic standpoint. The Ottoman survey, combined with the second data point, gave a figure for Egypt's post-plague economic output. Within a reasonable margin of error, this figure is a reliable and precise indicator of the state of Egypt's post-plague economy. When this sixteenth-century data was combined with the definitive value of the survey, the dramatic decline in Egypt's economic output became quantifiable. These data points could also be used on an absolute scale to make comparisons with England.
This study also presents a structured picture of the functioning of Egypt's landholding system. The intricacies of this landholding system have frustrated many historians who have tried to sketch out a clear pattern of its structure. Some historians have argued that it was a decentralized system in which individual landholders operated freely and were directly involved in the management of their estates. Others have labeled it as a simple model of an agro-managerial economy, along the lines of one of Wittfogel's oriental despotic states.
The truth lies somewhere between the two, and the lack of archival records has made it difficult for scholars to put a clear picture together. Yet scrutiny of primary and secondary sources made it clear that there were enough bits and pieces in the historical records to outline a basic structure for the system. With the help of previous scholars who have toiled in this area and some recent studies that outline certain features of the system, I was able to assemble many of the pieces of this puzzle.
However, some large gaps remain, and it was impossible to construct a working macroeconomic model for this system with these pieces still missing.
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The chronicles are full of telling clues, but the lacunae left by contemporary urban historians are often too large to fill by reading more narrative sources. Encyclopedias and manuals of statecraft were useful, but they too were silent where some vital connecting links were needed. Critically lacking were the fundamental archival sources: the records of the Diwan al-Jaysh the department of the military, partially in charge of landholding assignments.
These would probably provide all the answers a historian could ever hope for, but they have been lost for centuries. Fortunately, the serendipitous nature of ongoing research eventually provided a solution to this problem. In the midst of combing the endowment archives for information about wages, I realized that mortmain functioned along the same lines as the much more prevalent military prebends.
An examination of the endowment deeds, cross-checked by comparison with the chronicles, showed that the workings of the landholding system for endowed land mirrored the landholding system as a whole. The waqfiyyat in the Ministry of Religious Endowments thus provided a cognate archive that could be used to fill in the remaining gaps in the historical record. Egypt's landholding structure is indeed a complex one, and yet a structured outline of this detailed canvas does emerge; Chapter 2 models the system on a macroeconomic level.
Without this model, it would have been impossible to carry out a comparative study, and as the reader will see, without a comparative study it would have been impossible to determine exactly why Egypt's economy was so devastated by plague depopulation. Before venturing into this comparison and the underlying causes for economic change, I must include a few words about the place of this study in the wider scholarly debates surrounding the Black Death and its impact on late-medieval society. The impact of the plagues remains a subject of controversy. This has long been the case for historians of Western Europe.
One can only hope it will soon be the same in other parts of the world that were equally affected by this pandemic. The scholars who study the late-medieval period of Western Europe have long debated, and will doubtlessly continue to debate, the many possible changes caused by depopulation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
This is as true in the arena of economic history as it is in the history of religion, art, science, and culture in general. Disputes over the economic implications of the plague have ranged back and forth between those who emphasize its positive effects and those who see it as a setback for the economies in this area of the late-medieval world. It has alternately been viewed as either a turning point in history or a marginal event in the economic development of Europe.
The subject has also been a source of conflict for rival schools of economic thought, pitting Marxist economic historians against more "commercially" oriented historians. In spite of the disputes over many significant issues, scholars agree about certain aspects of the outcome in Western Europe, particularly northwestern Europe. In many areas, urban and rural wages rose, land rents declined, grain prices dropped, agricultural output became more diversified, and unemployment levels decreased. Furthermore, the percentage decrease of agrarian and total output was less than that of the population, and per capita incomes rose.
Overall economic recovery was largely completed by the year Landholding systems were transformed, and the manorial system, which was on the wane in some areas, collapsed in many parts of Western Europe, and was replaced by tenant farming or small peasant landholdings. Where these conclusions are accepted, they are often accepted as an axiomatic response to the relative scarcity of labor and the abundance of land that accompanied depopulation.
The concessions that landlords made to peasants also seem to be an obvious consequence of the relative scarcity of rural labor. Yet if we look beyond Western Europe, many of these economic responses, which, on the surface, seem to be natural responses to plague depopulation, did not occur. Nowhere is this truer than in Egypt, the epicenter of the Mamluk sultanate that dominated the eastern Mediterranean between and Plague depopulation, both urban and rural, was at least as severe in Egypt as in the more heavily stricken areas of Western Europe.
Over the course of a century, Egypt lost roughly half of its total population, taking into account the initial Black Death and subsequent plague outbreaks. Yet, as will be shown in this study, the consequences of this depopulation in Egypt were profoundly different from those that prevailed in much of Western Europe.
The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study
Wages dropped precipitously, land rents increased, grain prices rose, agricultural output became less diversified, and unemployment levels increased. The percentage decrease in agrarian and total output was greater than that of the population, and per capita incomes plummeted. The landholding system did not undergo a radical transformation, and the aristocracy was able to successfully contest the demands of scarce rural labor. Furthermore, economic recovery was nowhere in sight by ; the agrarian system lay in ruins, and agricultural output had declined by approximately sixty-eight percent.
The economic decline of Egypt did not conform to the pattern of post-plague transformations witnessed in Western Europe. Neither was Egypt's demise in any way adumbrated by the economic trajectory of the Mamluk regime itself. Before the plagues, Egypt had enjoyed a robust and growing agrarian sector that contributed the vast bulk of wealth to its overall economy.
Egypt's rulers had expanded arable land by some fifty percent in the years before the Black Death. Egypt had a wealth of diversified crops, a crop rotation system that was at least the equal of the best in Western Europe, and high levels of soil fertility that were due not only to the Nile flood, but also to the intensive use of root crops, such as clover, that were not widely utilized in Western Europe until the nineteenth century.
Many of the vast number of winter and summer crops, such as flax, sugar, and cotton, fed into the production of high quality textiles and proto-industrial "factory" wares that could easily rival Europe's best manufactured goods. Leaving aside the numerous accomplishments of Egypt's urban economy, the agrarian economy alone seemed to be set on a course of robust and promising growth and development.
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And yet almost all of this came to an end with the plagues. The same disease that left many of Western Europe's survivors in a better economic position devastated Egypt and left the remainder of its populace in desperate economic straits. Despite some historical work on the Black Death, the fundamental reasons for Egypt's demise in this period remain unknown.
Why was Egypt devastated when many areas of Western Europe not only survived, but also underwent agrarian transformations that were polar opposites of those that took place in Egypt? This study will explore this question by using England as the comparative example. England's economy epitomized the most positive economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the wake of the plagues.
The scarcity of labor in England destroyed the remnants of the manorial system, which was replaced by tenant farming. Wages rose, rents and grain prices dropped, unemployment decreased, per capita incomes rose, and the economy fully recovered by the year The impact of the plague in England was the antithesis of that in Egypt. In this sense, England represents the best test case for comparison with Egypt and the best model for examining the sources of Western European recovery and the causal factors behind Egypt's demise. Despite the obvious social and cultural differences between England and Egypt, and the seemingly vast differences in geography, England represents an excellent standard for comparison with Egypt.
Although no area of Western Europe can serve as a perfect match for Egypt, England is a far more appropriate model for comparison than France, the kingdoms of Spain, the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, or the Italian city-states. Both England and Egypt were exceptionally centralized compared to other regimes in Western Europe and the Middle East. Both countries were ruled by monarchs whose authority was circumscribed by a landholding aristocracy.
Both countries had roughly equivalent levels of population before and after the plagues. Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy in both countries, and urban commerce, industry, and long-distance trade, though greater in Egypt, formed a relatively small percentage of the two countries' GDPs. Both countries were islands: England literally so and Egypt functionally so since it was enveloped on three sides by desert and on one by sea. Furthermore, the pre-plague levels of total and agrarian GDP were roughly equivalent, as illustrated here.
Although Egypt and England shared a number of important similarities on a superficial level, it may seem to the reader that certain differences make a comparison unmanageable. England was part of Western Christendom and shared the legacy of Western Europe's political, economic, and legal development. Egypt had its own unique history and was part of the Islamic world, with legal and cultural institutions that it shared only with other Muslim countries. England lay at the northern extremity of Europe and had strong ties to France and the Low Countries.
Egypt bordered the Mediterranean and had strong trading ties to southern Europe and India. England was ruled by a hereditary aristocracy that had dropped many of its former cultural and linguistic ties to northern France.
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Egypt was ruled by a nonhereditary aristocracy the Mamluks that imported slave children from Central Asia and the Caucasus to serve in its military. England's area of arable and pastoral land was far larger than Egypt's thin strip of arable in the Nile Valley and Delta. England's agrarian system was rain-fed; Egypt's was a basin-irrigation system. This is just a short list of the obvious contrasts between the two countries. Other differences, such as those in the landholding system, will be spelled out in Chapter 2. The entire array of differences may be divided into three categories.
In the first category are those differences that appear to be vast in scope, but are, in fact, far less striking when viewed more closely. For example, although the surface area of Egypt's arable land was smaller than that in England, this was more than compensated for by the higher fertility of Egypt's soil thus allowing for the rough equivalence in population and overall agrarian output. Of greater importance is the apparent difficulty in comparing a rain-fed system with an irrigation system. The contrast in this case would seem to be ineluctably governed by geographical determinism, overshadowing the contrasts between the landholding systems.
This seeming gap is partly due to the influence of the old paradigm of "Oriental despotism. An irrigation system calls for a large administrative network to deal with the complexities of its management. According to this theory, the political system is of necessity one of "agro-managerial" despotism. Not only have more recent studies discredited many aspects of this theory, but it is clear that for Egypt, in particular, nothing could have been further from the truth. Egypt's irrigation system was originally built up from local zones of irrigation control called nomes.
These nomes gradually merged to form a larger regime that eventually encompassed Egypt as a whole. Whatever degree of centralization that emerged was a product of cultural development, not environmental determinism. This can be most clearly seen in the course of Egypt's history. Control of the irrigation system moved back and forth from centralized to local control, and the nomes never disappeared. One particular historical example is very pertinent to this study. Roman Egypt had a localized system of irrigation control.