Book review – The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe

8-minute read

The medieval bubonic plague pandemic was a major historical event. But what happened next? To give myself some grounding on this topic, I previously reviewed The Complete History of the Black Death. This provided detailed insights into the spread and mortality caused by the Black Death, which was only the first strike of the Second Plague Pandemic. With that month-long homework exercise in my pocket, I was ready to turn back to the book that send me down this plague-infested rabbit hole in the first place: The World the Plague Made by historian James Belich. One way to characterise this book is that it retells the history of Europe from 1350 onwards as if the plague mattered.

The World the Plague Made

The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe, written by James Belich, published by Princeton University Press in July 2022 (hardback, 640 pages)

The question of why Europe came to dominate the world has captivated many historians. A vast literature has been written on it, with various factors being put forward as being at least influential, if not decisive, though the plague is rarely one of them. The last time I touched on this topic was in my review of Escape from Rome, which argued that Europe’s rise to power depended on there not being a Roman-scale empire to suppress both power struggles between various nations, and the inventions that such struggles spur. Belich has taken note of this argument but is not convinced, instead turning to the impact of the plague. Though his amusing quip on page 3, “Why Europe? Y. pestis“, suggests otherwise, Belich does not consider it the killer explanation: “I do not claim that plague dominated the causal jigsaw. I do suggest that it is the biggest missing piece, whose inclusion casts new light on the whole” (p. 5). And though historians have understandably grown tired of the triumphalism and sometimes outright racism of previous sweeping, Eurocentric narratives, he thinks this is no reason to evade the “Why Europe?” question but to proceed with caution.

Belich does so in four parts. The first part gives the reader an overview of the spread and mortality caused by the Black Death and later plague epidemics, the role of rats in spreading it, and how ancient DNA analyses have confirmed that Yersinia pestis is indeed the bacterial culprit. Much of what is discussed here agrees with the material Benedictow laid out in detail in The Complete History of the Black Death (though Belich still refers to the first edition of that work). The real thrust of the book follows in the next three parts.

“Belich does not consider plague the killer explanation but does suggest that it is the biggest missing piece, whose inclusion casts new light on the whole.”

The second part of the book discusses the impact the plague had on economics, trade, technology, labour, and institutions. Though some scholars have examined this for, for instance, England, Belich casts his net far wider, starting with Western Europe. Though there are many more details and subtleties than I can discuss here, several large-scale patterns stand out. The loss of at least half of the population to the Black Death (and possibly as much as 60-65% according to Benedictow) and the continued losses during subsequent plague epidemics resulted in an economic golden age for the survivors. Per capita, they suddenly had more cash, fixed assets, natural resources, and prime locations for agriculture and industry at their disposal. Affluence increased, and with it the demand for food and (luxury) goods previously unaffordable to many. This fed into trade that supplied both natural resources that were easily overharvested (timber, fish, animal furs, and whale products) and luxury products from outside of Europe (e.g. silk, cotton, spices, and sugar). Various factors fed into technological developments that saw improvements to e.g. ships, weapons, and printing technology. Plague did not invent these, but it did pressure-cook them, as Belich puts it. Grain farming became concentrated in the most suitable regions, with many areas subsequently switching to more profitable activities, often pursued by women and children. Male labour became an export product, resulting in what Belich has dubbed “crew culture”: men working away from home long-term as soldiers, sailors, whalers, smugglers, hunters, loggers etc. in all-male crews. On the institutional front, plague stimulated the rise of city-states and networks of merchants, brokers, financiers, and entrepreneurs, often spanning several countries. Belich catchily labels the confluence of all of these elements a Western European plague-fostered “expansion kit” containing technology, manpower, and organisational capacity.

Part three is where the book gets really interesting. Did the plague effect similar changes in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia? The standard answer has been no, but Belich warns against a Eurocentric bias and mentions the possibility of different outcomes. “What we are testing for is not a mirroring of Western European history in Eastern Europe or the Muslim South, but the possibility of some under-recognized similarities among many well-recognised differences” (p. 189). This section of the book ventured into areas and cultures I was far less familiar with, discussing the history and influence of e.g. Russia; the Mamluk, Timurid, and especially Ottoman Empires; and Muslim colonial empires in Morocco, Oman, and India. Many of the same plague-fostered forces and dynamics turn out to be at play here, and there was a healthy exchange and adoption of ideas and inventions sometimes thought to be unique to Western Europe. Many of these empires initially made a killing on trading products between Europe and e.g. China or India, and later competed and coexisted with them when Western Europeans increasingly entered these markets directly. A few chapters here discuss examples of empires that became entwined, becoming mutually dependent on one another. For example, the city of Genoa was plugged into a transnational resource pool and traded intimately with the Spanish and Portuguese, while the Dutch became dependent on Poland for timber and grain. In the fourth and final part, Belich looks even further ahead to the consolidation of Western European empires in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their colonial expansion around the world, as well as the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

“Did the plague effect similar changes in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia? The standard answer has been no, but Belich warns against a Eurocentric bias and mentions the possibility of different outcomes.”

For a general reader such as myself, who comes to this topic as an outsider, The World the Plague Made is terribly interesting and educational as a history book per se, before even considering the impact and role of the plague. This global history survey draws on a vast amount of research. Nosing through the 158 pages of references to papers, books, and PhD theses is a reminder of just how much you do not know. This book could easily have overwhelmed the reader, but its division into thematic chapters and parts keeps the whole thing organised. If I have one complaint, it is that Belich frequently ventures quite far from his starting point (the plague) to consider downstream effects, and downstream effects of those downstream effects. Some connections to the plague seem tenuous and he admits that e.g. a link between the plague and the Industrial Revolution almost 500 years later may seem like a long stretch. It would have been useful to periodically explicitly remind the reader how plague and its aftershocks interacted with what already existed on the ground in the form of religion, politics, culture, natural resources, and local history. Inferring this is now often left as an exercise for the reader.

Historians who specialise in particular cultures, countries, or eras will no doubt find details to gripe about. Belich is well aware of his intrusion as a generalist into specialist territory. I appreciated how he tempers the ambitious scope of this book with a healthy dose of humility, writing that to be usefully wrong is “this book’s default aspiration” (p. 35). If he asks questions or suggests tentative links that will drive further research that will eventually prove him wrong, he would consider it a positive development. Similarly, the last page of his conclusion reiterates how historians are rightly suspicious of single-factor explanations for something as complex and multifaceted as history. I think Belich sufficiently indicates from the start that this book does not seek to do that. Furthermore, he highlights a continuing suspicion amongst historians towards the impact of exogenous shocks such as natural forces: “Humans are supposed to make their own history“, and, quoting John L. Brooke, “We historians are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that natural forces in some way circumscribe human agency” (p. 448). Belich and I are on the same page in thinking that such forces can most certainly shape history. It is why I find environmental history such an interesting discipline.

Overall, this was a fascinating book. It obviously comes recommended to students of the history of infectious disease, but also to readers receptive to the idea that history can be decisively shaped by curveballs thrown by nature.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The World the Plague Made

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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