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6 - Plagues and Socioeconomic Collapse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2017

Ian Morris
University of Birmingham
Jonathan L. Heeney
University of Cambridge
Sven Friedemann
University of Bristol
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‘Civilization both in East and West was visited by a destructive plague that devastated nations and caused populations to vanish’, the Arab traveller and philosopher Ibn Khaldûn wrote in 1377. ‘It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out.’

Ibn Khaldûn lived through the Black Death that had begun ravaging the Middle East in 1346, and clearly knew what he was talking about. By 1377, the plague had killed between one-third and one-half of the people in China, the Middle East and Europe (although it seems scarcely to have touched Japan, Southeast Asia, India, sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas). ‘As far as can be found in written records’, the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani concluded, ‘there has been no more widespread judgment by mortal illness from the universal Deluge to the present, nor one that embraced more of the universe, than the one that has occurred in our own day’.

And yet, nearly seven centuries later, humanity has not just survived the Black Death; it has positively flourished in its wake. There are now roughly seventeen times as many of us on the planet as there were in 1346. Each of us, on average, lives roughly twice as long as our fourteenth-century ancestors and produces, on average, fifteen times as much wealth per year. We live in an age of abundance that would have seemed like a magical kingdom to the people who endured the Black Death.

Any lecture series on plagues would need to ask how and why this happened, and when the Master and Fellows of Darwin College invited me to come back to Cambridge and suggest some answers, I jumped at the chance. Ernest Gellner's Darwin Lecture on the origins of society, delivered in the very first series (back in 1986), permanently changed the way I think about the past, and I could not possibly turn down this extraordinary honour. That said, the invitation was also intimidating, not least because the way I like to look at such big questions – through the lens of long-term history – has hardly been very prominent in previous Darwin Lectures. On reflection, however, that seemed to me all the more reason to accept.

Plagues , pp. 136 - 167
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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1. Khaldûn, Ibn, Muqadimmah 1.64, cited from Michael, Dols. (1976) The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press. All dates in this essay are AD unless marked BC.
2. Ole, Benedictow (2004) The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Rochester, NY:Boydell Press; Dols (1976); McNeill William (1976) Plagues and Peoples. New York:Anchor:132–75.
3. Matteo, Villani Description of the Plague in Florence (1348), quoted from Julius, Kirschner, Morrison, Karl, eds. (1986). University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization IV: Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press:448.
4. Population: Biraben, J.R. (1979). Essai sur l’évolution du nombre des hommes. Population 34:13–25.; Longevity:Livi-Bacci Massimo (2001) A concise history of world population. 3rd edn. Trs. Carl Ipsen. Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell.; Wealth: Maddison Angus (2010) Statistics on world population, GDP, and per capita GDP, 1–2008 AD. Accessed 15 May 2015.Google Scholar
5. I would like to take this opportunity to thank once again Mary Fowler, Jonathan Heeney, Sven Friedemann and Janet Gibson for inviting me to give a Darwin Lecture and for making my time at the college in February 2014 so enjoyable, and to Anthony Snodgrass, Annemarie Künzl, Paul Cartledge and Peter Garnsey for their conversation. I should add that the organisers originally invited me to speak about ‘Plagues and economic collapse’, but on reflection, the less elegant ‘Plagues and socioeconomic collapse’ seems a better fit with what I actually said.
6. Published as Ernest, Gellner (2005) Origins of society. In Fabian, A.C., ed., Origins: 128–40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
7. Ian, Morris (2015) Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
8. In Michael Postan's classic book The Medieval Economy and Society, for instance, under ‘Black Death’ the index simply says ‘see Plague’ (Michael, Postan (1972) The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages. London:Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
9. Joseph, Tainter (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 4 (emphasis in original); Diamond Jared (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York:Viking:3.
10. Ian, Morris (2010) Why the West Rules – For Now: the Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future. London:Profile; (2013) The Measure of Civilisation: How Social Development Explains the Fate of Nations. London:Profile.
11. Morris, (2010):144; 2013:5.
12. Available at
13. ul Haq, 1995.
14. Index making is, admittedly, chainsaw art rather than Old Master material, and the margins of error may well run as high as 10 per cent (although we can be fairly sure that they do not run much higher [Morris 2013:239–52]). Every step of the process also raises major definitional problems, which I examine at Morris (2013):17–52.
15. Morris, (2010):393–410. As always in historical analysis, however, multiple factors were interconnected. Eastern development was already falling in the thirteenth century, largely because of Jurchen and Mongol invasions of China from the steppes; but since steppe migrations were the main mechanism for spreading the Black Death after 1331, we cannot really separate migration and disease. Migrants began the collapse by devastating agrarian societies, and then accelerated it by merging disease pools across Eurasia.
16. The historical literature is huge and full of subtle distinctions, but the core argument goes back to Michael, Postan (1950) Moyen âge. In Rapports du IXe congrès international des sciences historiques I: 225–41. Paris:A. Colin, with important qualifications and elaborations in Habakkuk H. J. (1958) The economic history of modern Britain. Journal of Economic History 18:486–501, Postan Michael (1966) England. In Michael Postan, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe I: Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages:548–632. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Le Roy Ladurie Emmanuel (1966) Les paysans de Languedoc. 2 vols. Paris:SEVPEN, and a more up-to-date version in Herlihy David (1997) The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
17. Particularly Maurice, Dobb (1946) Studies in the Development of Capitalism. London:Routledge; Hilton Rodney, ed. (1976) The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. London:Verso; Bois Guy (1984 [1976]) The Crisis of Feudalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
18. Robert, Brenner (1985 [1976]). Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe. In Aston and Philpin 1985:10–63. First published in Past and Present 70:30–74::21, 23.
19. Wittold, Kula (1974) An Economic Theory of Feudalism. London:Verso.
20. Particularly the papers in Aston, T.H., Philpin, C.H.E., eds. (1985) The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
21. Robert, Allen (2001) The great divergence in European wages and prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War. Explorations in Economic History 38:411–48; Clark Gregory (2005) The condition of the working class in England, 1209–2008. Journal of Political Economy 113:1307–40; Pamuk Sevket (2007) The Black Death and the origins of the ‘great divergence’ across Europe, 1300–1600. European Review of Economic History 11:298–317. Scheidel Walter (2010) Real wages in early economies: evidence for living standards from 1800 BCE to 1300 CE. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53:425–62 identifies data going back to 1800 BC, but no continuous series runs from ancient to modern times.Google Scholar
22. Heinrich Müller, cited in Fernand, Braudel (1981) Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century I: The Structures of Everyday Life. Trs. Reynolds, Siân. New York:Harper and Row.
23. The papers in Robert, Allen et al., eds. (2005) Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe. Oxford:Oxford University Press and Bengtsson Tommy et al., eds. (2005) Life Under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1500–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press collect much material.
24. Sevket, Pamuk, Shatzmiller, Maya (2014) Plagues, wages, and economic change in the Islamic Middle East, 700–1500. Journal of Economic History 74:196–229.Google Scholar
25. Robert, Allen et al. (2011) Wages, prices and living standards in China, 1738–1925: A comparison with Europe, Japan and India. Economic History Review 64 Supplement: 8–38 tell the Chinese story only from 1738 onwards.Google Scholar
26. Zhang Tao, Gazetteer of She County 6.10b–12a, cited from Timothy, Brook (1998) The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley:University of California Press.:1, 4.
27. McNeill, 1976.
28. McNeill, 1976:5.
29. Landis, MacKellar (2007) Pandemic influenza: A review. Population and Development Review 33:429–51.Google Scholar
31. Cited from McNeill, 1976, p. 118.
32. The details are debated by the contributors to Cascio, Elio Lo, ed. (2012) L'impatto della ‘peste antonina’. Bari:Edipuglia. In the earlier scholarship, Duncan-Jones 1996 defends a high mortality estimate, while Greenberg Joseph (2003) Plagued by doubt: Reconsidering the impact of a mortality crisis in the second century A.D. Journal of Roman Archaeology 16:413–25 and Bruun 2003 and 2007 prefer lower estimates.
33. Francesco, Tiradritti (2014) Of kilns and corpses: Theban plague victims. Egyptian Archaeology 44 Google Scholar
34. Walter, Scheidel (2002) A model of demographic and economic change in Roman Egypt after the Antonine Plague. Journal of Roman Archaeology 15:97–114; (2012) Roman wellbeing and the consequences of the Antonine Plague. In Lo Cascio 2012: 265–95; Sallares 2007.Google Scholar
35. McNeill, 1976:96–109.
36. Texts: Leslie, D.D., Gardiner, K.J.H. (1996) The Roman Empire in Chinese Sources. Rome:Bardi.
37. The first and second centuries AD, like the thirteenth and fourteenth, also saw a great increase in maritime contact between the Middle East and India, but the Antonine Plague seems to have had no more impact on South Asia than the Black Death would do. This suggests that in both periods, horses on the steppes, rather than ships on the Indian Ocean, were the main vectors for merging eastern and western disease pools.
38. I explain my own views on the Antonine Plague in Morris 2010:292–8.
39. Scheidel 2012:288.
40. In a comparative study of the Black Death in England and Egypt, Stuart, Borsch (2005) The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. Austin: University of Texas Press suggests that Egypt after 1350 in fact began a long-term socioeconomic decline very similar to the one I suggest came in the wake of the Antonine Plague.
41. Michaela, Harbeck et al. (2013) Yersinia pestis DNA from skeletal remains from the 6th century reveals insights into Justinianic Plague. PLoS Pathogens 9(5):e1003349; Wagner David et al. (2014) Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: A genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 14(4):319–26.Google Scholar
42. David, Keys (2000) Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization. New York:Ballantine; Little Lester, ed. (2007) Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Rosen Stanley (2007) Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. New York:Viking; Sarris Peter (2002) The Justinianic Plague: Origins and effects. Continuity and Change 17:169–82; Stathakopoulos Dionysios (2007) Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empires. Burlington, VT:Ashgate.
43. Eliyahu, Ashtor (1969) Histoire des prix et des salaires dans l'orient médiéval. Paris:SEVPEN; Findlay Ronald, Mats Lundahl (2006) Demographic shocks and the factor proportion model: from the Plague of Justinian to the Black Death. In Ronald Findlay et al., eds., Eli Heckscher, International Trade, and Economic History:157–98. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Scheidel 2010; Pamuk and Shatzmiller 2014.
44. Pamuk, and Shatzmiller, 2014:221–2.
45. Xie, C.Z. et al. (2007) Evidence of ancient DNA reveals the first European lineage in Iron Age central China. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274:1597–1601.Google Scholar
46. Denis, Twitchett (1979) Population and pestilence in T'ang China. In Bauer, Wolfgang, ed., Studia Sino-Mongolica: Festschrift für Herbert Franke: 35–68. Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag.
47. Trevor, Bryce (1998) The Kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford: Oxford University Press:223–5; Cline 2011:60.
48. Eric, Cline (2014) 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press has a good review of the collapse, which cut Western social development by 8 per cent between 1300 and 1000 BC.
49. Thucydides 2.47–54. Thucydides (3.27) also mentions a recurrence in 427/6 BC.
50. Manolis, Papagrigorakis et al. (2006) DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the plague of Athens. International Journal of Infectious Diseases 10:206–14.Google Scholar
51. Diodorus 13.114; 14.63, 70–1. Macaulay is quoted in Peter, Green (2010) Diodorus Siculus, books 11–12.37.1. Austin: University of Texas Press:ix., but Green defends Diodorus as ‘a rational, methodical, if somewhat unimaginative, minor historian’ against what he calls the ‘near-hysterical academic chorus of dismissal’ (2010:x).
52. Josiah, Ober (2015) The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
53. A term coined in Alfred, Crosby (1972) The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT:Westview Press; and, (2003) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
54. Charles, Mann (2005) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York:Knopf.
55. DNA: Brendan, O'Fallon, Fehren-Schmitz, Lars (2011) Native Americans experienced a strong population bottleneck coincident with European contact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108:20444–8. Quotation from Crosby 2003:215.Google Scholar
56. Allen, 2001, 2009; Pamuk 2007.
57. Morris, 2010:459–68.
58. Morris, 2010:332–42.
59. Henri, Pirenne (1939 [1937]) Mohammed and Charlemagne. Trs. Miall, Bernard. New York:Norton.
60. E.g., Richard, Hodges, Whitehouse, David (1983) Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis. London:Duckworth; McCormick Michael (2001) Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300–900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Wickham Chris (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2009 The inheritance of Rome: illuminating the Dark Ages, 400–1000. New York:Penguin; Abulafia David (2011) The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. London:Allen Lane.
61. Morris, 2010:356–63.
62. I expand on this theme in Morris 2010:449–55.
63. Laurie, Garrett (1994) The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance. New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux remains a valuable study.
64. New H1N1:
67. See;, and the forum on ‘Winning the battle against emerging pathogens’ in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70.4 (2014), available at
68. Morris, 2010:223–6.
69. No one has ever tracked Twain's supposed comment (‘History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme’) back to a source, so I have felt free to adapt it to fit my sentence.
70. Paul, Bracken (2012) The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. New York:Time Books.
71. Steve, Pinker (2011) The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York:Viking; Morris Ian (2014) War: What Is It Good for? Conflict and the Progress of Civilisation from Primates to Robots. London:Profile;
72. I emphasise this (Morris 2014:319–25) in distinction to the more complicated ‘tale of six trends, five inner demons, and five historical forces’ offered by Steven Pinker (2011:xxiv).
73. This argument inverts Charles Tilly's famous claim that ‘war made the state, and the state made war’ (Charles, Tilly (1975) Reflections on the history of European state-making. In Tilly, Charles, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe:3–83. Princeton: Princeton University Press).
74. Every sentence (perhaps every word) in this paragraph is hotly contested. I explain my views in detail in Morris 2014.
75. There is even a good historical analogy for such a reversal; for 1200 years, between roughly AD 200 and 1400, Eurasian wars went through a long period in which instead of combining small violent societies into large peaceful ones, they generally did the opposite (Morris 2014:112–64).
76. Hans, Kristensen, Norris, Robert (2013) Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2013. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69(5), available at–2013; (2014a) US nuclear forces, 2014. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70(1), available at; (2014b) Russian nuclear forces, 2014. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70(2), available at The 95 per cent decline counts only active warheads; counting older warheads that have not yet been dismantled, the figure is closer to 80 per cent.Google Scholar
78. I discuss this trend in more detail in Morris 2010:590–8.
79. Rats: Japanese computer: Schnupp.
80. Robert, Wright (2000) Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny. New York:Pantheon; Morozov, at
81. I expand on this argument at Morris 2014:377–91.
82. I stress ‘definite examples’ because there are cases – such as the disintegration of the Indus Valley civilisation after 1900 BC, the East Mediterranean breakdown after 1200 BC and the Classic Maya collapse after AD 600 – about which we just do not know enough to specify the role of disease.

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