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The Black Death in Egypt and England

The Black Death in Egypt and England
A Comparative Study

A cogent economic analysis of why the Black Death devastated Egypt while it revitalized England.

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June 2005
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207 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 map, 43 line drawings, 34 tables |

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.

  • A Note on Transliteration
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Plague and Methodology
  • Chapter 2. Mortality, Irrigation, and Landholders in Mamluk Egypt
  • Chapter 3. The Impact of the Plagues on the Rural Economy of Egypt
  • Chapter 4. The Impact of the Plagues on the Rural Economy of England
  • Chapter 5. The Dinar Jayshi and Agrarian Output in England and Egypt
  • Chapter 6. Prices and Wages: A Reevaluation
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion
  • Appendix. The Marginal Product of Labor Reconsidered
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

Stuart J. Borsch is Assistant Professor of History at Assumption College in Worchester, Massachusetts.


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We live in an age of steadily growing population and urban sprawl, with industrial growth continually encroaching on the few untouched pockets of our ecosystem, so it is hard for us to imagine our distant ancestors' fear of nature as an encroaching predator. It is harder still for us to conceive of the terror and shock they experienced as urban centers shrank and cultivated fields slowly reverted to their natural states. Yet this was the predominant mood that gripped the survivors of the Black Death. Their numbers had been devastated by a mysterious and horrifying disease that had come from "the East" and revisited generation after generation in waves of epidemics. Bewildered communities watched in dismay as nature took the place of humanity's civilized infrastructure. They drew together in fear as small hamlets disappeared from the map and villages dwindled to ghosts of their former selves. People fled in panic to the largest cities, only to find that the former epicenters of civilization were themselves shrinking, as once crowded neighborhoods and bustling marketplaces fell into decay. Others held out in their familiar rural settings, helplessly trying to confront the powerful forces of nature as their small numbers grew too few to resist the oncoming wave of indigenous plants and forests that their ancestors had once cleared. The natural environment, aided by a small rod-shaped bacterium, had returned with a vengeance to reclaim its former dominance.

A ship arrived in Alexandria. Aboard it were thirty-two merchants and a total of three hundred people—among them traders and slaves. Nearly all of them had died. There was no one alive on the ship, save four of the traders, one slave, and about forty sailors. These [forty-five] survivors [soon] died in Alexandria.

This same story, often accompanied by a vivid account of a ship full of corpses drifting into port, was repeated in virtually every civilization of the Old World. A report of the Black Death's arrival at Bristol in England reads like the one from Alexandria. The death toll and symptoms were the same. The morbid story was reiterated in France, the Holy Roman Empire, the kingdoms of Spain, the Italian city-states, the Golden Horde in Russia, the Byzantine Empire, the principalities of North Africa, the al-Khanate sultanate in Persia, the kingdoms of India, and the Mongol Empire in China. This disease was "a random occurrence in history and almost unique." So high and sudden was the mortality that some scholars maintain that its effects resembled those of a nuclear war more than those of a pandemic. As Norman Cantor describes it, "It threatened the stability and viability of civilization. It was as if a neutron bomb had been detonated. Nothing like this has happened before or since in the recorded history of mankind, and the men and women of the fourteenth century would never be the same."

"Black Death" is a term for the fourteenth-century manifestation of a plague caused by Yersinia pestis, a small rod-shaped bacterium (bacillus) that is usually carried by the rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis. In rodent colonies, the bacillus lives in the guts of the fleas and is transmitted back and forth between fleas and rodents. The disease can remain endemic to rodent colonies indefinitely and does not need Homo sapiens to survive. When the disease does break out of its natural environment, it is usually, although not exclusively, spread by the joint action of fleas and the black rat, Rattus rattus.

When a flea bites a plague-infected rodent, its esophagus becomes blocked with plague bacilli. This blockage makes it impossible for the flea to eat. The flea eventually dies, but not before it vainly attempts to feed on the black rat or another warm-blooded host. If the flea happens upon a human, it bites into the flesh, but rather than swallowing a small piece of human skin, it succeeds only in regurgitating massive amounts of plague bacilli into the superficial wound. The flea eventually dies, but not before it has had the opportunity to infect countless numbers of rats and humans.

When the flea regurgitates Y. pestis bacilli into a human host, they multiply in the victim's bloodstream. The lymph glands filter the bacilli out of the bloodstream, and the glands, typically those in the neck or groin area, subsequently become engorged with bacilli. This causes agonizing pain at the site of the lymph nodes, which first darken and then swell to form a "bubo" (hence "bubonic" plague). The buboes vary from almond- to orange-sized. The victim also suffers from flu-like symptoms, including a high fever (up to 107 degrees Fahrenheit). The bacilli then wreak widespread damage throughout the victim's body, attacking the lungs, heart, and kidneys. The bacilli also attack the nervous system, sometimes leading to the wild hysteria that gave rise to the phrase "the dance of death." In most cases, the victim then hemorrhages massive amounts of blood—which causes dark blotches to appear—before slipping into a coma and dying.

The infection of the human host takes one of three clinical forms. The first of these is bubonic plague. This form of the disease arises as a result of a fleabite and cannot be transmitted directly from person to person. As described above, plague is spread through the lymphatic system. Symptoms generally appear within two to three days, and the disease is fatal in about seventy-five percent of the cases. The excruciatingly painful buboes discharge copious amounts of yellow pus if they burst open. The damage to the nervous system adds to the agony caused by the swollen buboes, leaving the victim prostrate with pain. The victim frequently falls unconscious at this point. However, in many cases the victim stays awake, and the damage to the nervous system causes hallucinations and delirium. Although rendered nearly immobile by the pain, the patient will sometimes lash out in a mad assault at those around him. Other types of frenzied behavior in the midst of paralyzing pain are also recorded. An observer of the Black Death in the south of France reported that "a man climbed on to the roof of his house and threw down the tiles into the street. Another executed a mad, grotesque dance on the roof." As the bacilli multiply in the victim's bloodstream, massive hemorrhages occur under the skin and in the body. Dark blotches often appear on the skin, and the intensely putrid odor caused by the disease is magnified as the patient vomits and discharges bloody urine and feces. At this point, the suffering patient lapses into a coma and dies, a week to twelve days after contracting the disease.

The second form of this disease is known as pneumonic plague. This secondary manifestation occurs when the bacilli settle in the lungs. The victim develops severe pneumonia and soon begins to cough up enormous amounts of bloody phlegm as the lungs hemorrhage. Pneumonic plague is nearly always fatal; death from asphyxiation occurs within two to four days. Not dependent on flea transmission, this form of plague is very infectious. The disease is spread by airborne droplets from the victim's cough and can infect an entire household within a matter of minutes.

The third and rarest form of plague is septicemic plague, which occurs when the bacilli manage to bypass the lymphatic system and enter the bloodstream directly. It is always fatal. Death occurs within hours, and there are often no accompanying symptoms.

Y. pestis struck the Mediterranean with particular ferocity during the sixth-century reign of Justinian I. The disease remained endemic to this area for centuries thereafter. It seems that the fourteenth-century plague originated in some part of Central Asia. Arab observers were well informed about the geography of the Old World at this time, and their accounts of the origin of the plague serve to confirm the hypothesis that it began somewhere in Central Asia.

Central Asia was the area that Ibn al-Wardi, a contemporary observer (and later victim) of the Black Death in Syria, described as the "land of darkness." Other Arab observers, like their Western European counterparts, attested to its origins in the "East." In the account of al-Maqrizi, "It started in the land of al-Qan al-Kabir (the Mongol territory) . . . and this was in the year 742 (1341-1342) and news of this arrived from the land of the Uzbeks (in the Golden Horde) . . . and it spread throughout the Mongol lands (al-Qan) killing the il-Qan and his six children . . . and then it spread throughout the Eastern countries and the Bilad al-Uzbek, Istanbul, Qaysariyya, and Rum."

Some contemporary Arab observers described how the eastern chain or gate that separated humanity from Gog and Magog had been broken, allowing this apocalyptic catastrophe to spread. The release of wild men from Gog and Magog appears in Islamic tradition as a harbinger of the end of the world. The word ta`un was used specifically for the Black Death. Waba' was used to describe the plague, but waba' embraces a wider scope. Dummal or khiyara was generally used to refer to the plague buboes. The root meaning of ta`un carries with it the specific notion of being pierced or transfixed by something. Some popular traditions associated this word with the notion that evil jinn, servants of Satan, were preparing plague arrows in the underworld, which they would then shoot into victims. After the release of wild, mutant men from the great gate or chain that was used to confine them, the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal) would appear, and Jesus would return to the earth to defeat him.

That Central Asia was the starting point for the Black Death seems almost certain. As Don Nardo points out in the introduction to his book on the plague, "The earliest known appearance of the Black Death . . . was in a Christian [Nestorian] community just south of Lake Balkhash . . . archaeologists have found a cemetery with an unusually high number of graves dating to the years 1338-1339; three of the gravestones actually identify plague as the cause of death." Other scholars have confirmed that Nestorian graves in Central Asia, dating from the early fourteenth century, identify the deceased as plague victims. Dr. Pollitzer, a modern researcher of Y. pestis, has also concluded that early fourteenth-century Central Asia was the point of origin for the plague.

Striking out from Central Asia, the Black Death, within a few decades, wrought havoc from China to Iceland. Some scholars have asked how this could have been Y. pestis. How can it have had a lethal impact that differed so fundamentally from that of known plague bacilli? Some historians have proposed that it was anthrax combined with Y. pestis. But could these two disease vectors have operated in tandem over such a wide swath of territory? It seems unlikely. It seems probable that the fourteenth-century manifestation of the plague was something different from the Y. pestis that periodically afflicted populations in the Mediterranean. When one looks at the wider scope of the plague, stretching from China through the Middle East to Western Europe, it becomes abundantly clear from the scale and scope of the mortality that there must have been something new, something that could strike with a universal impact over disparate regions of the Old World.

What seems like a more logical hypothesis is that this strain of Y. pestis was a new and mutant strain of a previously encountered bacterium. Lawrence Conrad, in his research on the early medieval plague of Justinian and the early Islamic caliphate, has concluded that "the plague bacillus spreading in the sixth century was an extremely virulent and toxic strain of Pasteurella [i.e., Yersinia] pestis." He adds that "the Pasteurella pestis strains now found in northern Asia and central Africa are chemically related, yet distinct from that found in India and places to which the plague spread in the third [modern] pandemic." Conrad also states that "with the victims succumbing quickly to bubonic infection, it appears that the strain of P. pestis responsible for the pandemic was much more toxic than it is today." It must have been a mutation in the bacteria: how else could a disease endemic to the Mediterranean region suddenly cause an explosion of mortality that eclipsed almost all areas of the Old World?

And how did this mutation take place? One plausible hypothesis might center on the blind evolutionary machinations of the disease and its dynamic interaction with its hosts. It is well known that successful diseases are those that can infect and live in their hosts without causing catastrophic damage to them. A successful disease is one that can evolve with its host, "tame" itself over generations, and become "friendly" enough to survive along with the host, even though it might cause some mortality along the way. The common cold is probably the best example: we suffer a bit, we sniffle, we cough, we spread the germs, but we almost inevitably get better after a short period of time. By contrast, any disease that kills most of its host population risks its own demise: it needs hosts in order to survive.

There are illustrative examples of the latter phenomenon to be found in history. This typically occurs when a disease has just made the jump from one species host to another: the more dissimilar the DNA, the more virulent the impact. Rinderpest, in 1891, decimated cattle in Africa, but then died out from a lack of host animals.

A very cogent example is provided by the evolution of myxomatosis, a relative of smallpox. Myxomatosis, endemic among Brazilian rabbits, was introduced into Australia in an attempt to reduce the number of rabbits, which were breeding rapidly in the absence of predators and devouring pasturage intended for sheep. Australian rabbits, a separate genus from their Brazilian cousins, were nearly wiped out by the "Brazilian friendly" disease. What should be noted here is that the disease slowly acclimated itself to the Australian rabbit population. The disease was 99.8% fatal in the first year it was introduced to its new hosts. In the subsequent year, it was 90% fatal. By the seventh year, its rate of mortality had dropped to 25%. The disease, after having made the leap to a new breed of rabbits, was adapting in such a way that both host and virus could survive together, if not in symbiosis, then at least with an uneasy sort of truce.

Y. pestis, in the pre-Black Death era, had established an uneasy sort of truce with its human and rodent hosts in the Mediterranean region. Plague outbreaks were at times severe, but nothing like the universal catastrophe of the Black Death. The bacteria, in regular contact with fleas, rats, and humans, had adapted to survive by becoming less lethal. One could say the same for smallpox and measles, once highly virulent and fatal diseases that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries CE, yet gradually became tamer and adapted to their human hosts over time.

So why might Y. pestis have suddenly appeared in a form that resulted in such dire mortality? 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. pestis that survived in the Mediterranean region (from the plague of Justinian I to the onset of the Black Death). 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. pestis. 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. pestis was capable of being transmitted far more easily than earlier or modern strains of the disease. 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. pestis varied from the modern one. 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. pestis, as Alexander Yersin noted in his work in East Asia. These factors should be considered by historians attempting to explain the extremely high virulence of the fourteenth-century pandemic, especially if Y. pestis was prevalent in a mutant form.

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 1330s, 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.

The Black Death followed trade routes as it rapidly spread from Central Asia into the Middle East. Fleas in bundles of grain or other produce could have easily been transported across the long distances between Mongol trade stations to the Crimea. From there it spread to Constantinople and thence to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain (as well as Southern Europe). 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." In other areas, survivors were able to adapt, finding new ways to manipulate the environment that allowed them to recover and even flourish. 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. 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.g., agricultural land, urban real estate) to support an institution that served a public good.

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 1315 land survey in order to determine Egypt's land revenue before the plagues. I then analyzed an informative Ottoman survey of Egypt conducted in 1596-1597. 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 1350-1500 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 (1315) and one well after the Egyptian population had reached its nadir (1522). 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 1315 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 1315 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 (1169-1250) 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 1315 land survey to full effect. The revenue values of the 1315 survey can be translated into precious-metal currencies or a fixed "basket" of agricultural goods. Hence, the first data point, 1315, 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 1968, 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 1522 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 1315 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. 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 1500. 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 1250 and 1517. 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. 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 1500; 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.

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 1500. 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. 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." The theory of Oriental despotism holds that the geography of irrigation systems dictates the nature of the political and cultural structure. 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. The landholding system in Roman Egypt, far from being a model of Oriental despotism, was more akin to that of England in the High Middle Ages. Landowners in small towns or villages controlled segments of the irrigation system that corresponded to nomes. Landholding was hereditary, and landowners had close ties to their estates, which were near at hand. What makes this example especially instructive is the fact that Roman Egypt suffered a massive epidemic in the late second century CE during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The economic outcome of this epidemic was, in many ways, strikingly similar to the outcome of the plagues in late-medieval England. Depopulation was severe, eliminating perhaps one-third of the tax-paying population. However, the fall in agrarian output was less severe than the decline in population, as was the case with late-medieval England. Furthermore, landowners reduced the rents for peasants on the land as they competed with one another in an attempt to keep peasants on their local estates. Agrarian wages rose with the fall in population, indicating that the per capita income of the local stratum of the population rose. Finally, Roman Egypt recovered relatively quickly from the devastation caused by the plagues. All of these features resemble the effects of the plagues in late-medieval England rather than in late-medieval Egypt.

The salient point here is that the landholding system, not geography alone, determined the outcome for Egypt's agrarian economy. If fourteenth-century Egypt had had a landholding system like that of Roman Egypt (similar to the one that predominated in late-medieval England), Egypt would have weathered the plagues just as well as England did in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Had Egypt's landholding system been under local control, as it was in many periods of its history, Egypt would have been in a position to respond to depopulation in the same way that England did after the Black Death. The prime importance of landholding will be discussed in greater depth in the chapters that follow, but the example here suggests that differences in geography were not the predominant factor in determining the differential outcomes from the plagues in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

The geographical location of Egypt and England is also less important than it seems at first glance. Although Egypt bordered the Mediterranean, it did not have a Mediterranean economy. Unlike the Italian city-states and other small Mediterranean countries that relied heavily upon long-distance trade, Egypt derived almost all of its GNP from agrarian revenue. Total annual exports to the northern Mediterranean accounted for less than two percent of Egypt's GDP. With the long-distance trade between Egypt and countries farther east added in, Egypt's ratio of long-distance trade to GDP is relatively close to that of England. Thus, the apparent contrast in geographical location along trading routes is also not as great as it first appears.

As will be further discussed below, an important observation in this study is that Egypt had a robust and flourishing domestic economy and, within the realm of the Mamluk sultanate, a vibrant local trade that was fully capable of standing on its own. This cuts against the grain of characterizations of Egypt (and other parts of the Middle East) as trading centers that simply passed goods back and forth from the Far East to Western Europe. Egypt's economic prosperity and decline were largely dictated by changes within its agrarian regime. Long-distance trade played a subordinate role in the overall development of Egypt's economy.

Implicit in this comparison of Egypt and England is a denial that their cultures cannot be compared on an economic level. This study analyzes Egypt's economy from a nonessentializing approach. Nowhere is this more important than in the arena of religion, so often the source of sweeping generalizations that attribute positive economic developments to Christianity and negative cultural and economic factors to Islamic culture. Even if the comparisons spare Islamic culture from castigation, it is often depicted as an alien "other" that needs to be examined through the lens of a supposedly all-embracing religious culture that set it apart from Western Europe. One of the purposes of this study is to try to escape from this Orientalist trap and view the socioeconomic outcome in a more objective fashion. As will become clear in this study, Islamic culture played a marginal role in the differential outcomes from the plagues.

Therefore, the third set of differences is of primary importance. Here, the picture that has emerged from this study gives pride of place to the differences in the landholding system. As the case of Roman Egypt indicates, had the landholding system been in a phase of localized nome control during the later Middle Ages, the repercussions of plague depopulation would probably have been quite similar in Egypt and England. As will be shown, the different structures of the landholding systems were the key element that determined the final outcome in the two countries.

One final obstacle to this comparison is worth mentioning here. The historical trajectory of England is often seen by historians as exceptional and thus not representative of Western Europe as a whole. England's geographical location as an island allowed for a greater degree of royal authority and centralized control. England's system of feudalism and manorialism did not correspond to the supposed "classic" case on the continent. England's success in dismantling the manorial system and replacing it with the tenant farming that eventually led to agrarian capitalism is also seen as a paramount feature setting it apart from the continent. England's early development of rural proto-industry is also at times viewed as a special feature of its economy. Finally, the fact that England was the first economy in the world to industrialize is taken as a sign that its development must have been strikingly different at an earlier period of history. All of these are part of the commonplace label of "English exceptionalism."

Although England's feudal and manorial systems were never exactly like those on the continent, one would be very hard-pressed to come up with a "classic" case of feudalism or manorialism, if indeed such an entity ever existed for any appreciable length of time in Western Europe. Every part of the continent exhibited its own variations on the feudal-manorial model, and no one area could really serve as a model during the changing climate of the late Middle Ages. It is true that England was an early leader in the development of tenant farming, agrarian capitalism, and rural proto-industry, but it was a leader, not an exception. Developments along these lines were taking place at throughout Western Europe at different times in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period; England embodied only the most intensive mix of these features. England's geographical setting as an island, and its attendant features of royal control and a higher degree of economic centralization, might indeed be seen as features of so-called exceptionalism; but centralization and royal authority were equally (if not more) powerful in Egypt, making a comparison with England all the more worthwhile.

Finally, it should be added that if England was somewhat exceptional for Western Europe, Egypt was equally so for the Islamic world. Egypt was an island in the Middle East and was also—before the plagues—a leader in economic development in the region. And just as there is no classic prototype for development for Western Europe, so too is there none for the Islamic Middle East. The purpose of this study is to find two economies with similar parameters (e.g., population, levels of GDP, predominance of agriculture, percentage of long-distance trade in the economy, royal control, etc.) so that a comparison of agricultural regimes can be carried out with a degree of normative control. England and Egypt fit this requirement quite well, much better than any other two regions in Western Europe and the Middle East. If one is to do a cross-regional, cross-cultural comparison, England and Egypt are the ideal choices.

This brings us to the subject of why a cross-regional, cross-cultural comparison of this nature is so important and so long overdue. On a very broad level, many scholars have argued that the late Middle Ages were a crucial period of divergence between East and West, a period when Western Europe leapt ahead of the Middle East and other ancient civilizations. These arguments have come from several different schools of thought. Many historians assert that the Black Death set the stage for a critical surge in agrarian progress and technological innovation in Western Europe. To take one example, David Herlihy, in his posthumously published The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, emphasized the numerous "positive" sides of the plagues' impact on Western Europe. He argued that the plagues initiated a transition to more diversified economies, raised the standard of living for the majority of the population, and spurred innovations in technology (particularly in areas where differential factor endowments allowed for the substitution of capital for labor).

At the same time, some historians have argued that the Middle East, and other parts of the non-Western world, fell into intellectual and cultural stagnation during this period. Still others contend that no such dramatic transition occurred at this time, and that the civilizations of Western Europe, the Middle East, China, and India remained roughly equal in terms of economic development prior to 1500 (or even later).

Quite a few scholars have called for more studies of non-European areas during the plague years, both as a plea for more comparative work and in the hope of resolving some aspects of the debate surrounding developments in Western Europe at this time. Samuel Cohn, in his introduction to Herlihy's book on the plagues, points out that in the face of conflicting sets of evidence, "Herlihy's sweeping analyses for Western Europe cry out for comparative investigations. Were the social, political and psychological consequences of the Black Death as uniform throughout Western Europe as Herlihy's essays imply? And how do we account for the sharp differences between eastern and western Europe in economic and social developments set off by the plague or, even more profoundly, between the West and the Middle East, where the plague was as virulent as if not more so than in the West?"

J. M. Blaut, in a critique of Brenner's localization of the birth of capitalism in rural England in the late Middle Ages, comments that "Brenner is mistaken in searching for fundamental transformations in northern Europe: he should search also in Fujian, Vijayanagar, Kilwa, the Nile Valley, the upper Niger valley, and so on." Blaut also adds a telling comment on world development that is a plea for more comparative work: "A number of writers, Marxists and non-Marxists, have argued that . . . processes of change out of something like a feudal or tributary mode of production and toward something like capitalism were occurring in many world regions during the Middle Ages." It is a testament to the gulf that divides generalists or global historians and specialists in the history of the Middle East that Blaut can make these assertions and certain prominent historians of the Middle East can dismiss them out of hand. One eminent historian of the Middle East, by no means alone in his views, has asserted that the failure of the Middle East to advance on material grounds was a foregone conclusion. He also suggests that these questions are not worth exploring and that the larger comparative issues "[a]re probably best left to the more up-market writers of science fiction."

In no way does this study pretend to be an attempt to resolve the grand contentious issues of macrohistory that broadly compare Western Europe's successful economic development with the rest of the world's. Rather, it seeks to narrow the focus of the comparison so that sweeping generalizations can be avoided and more specific questions can be answered with greater certainty. Comparative studies of East and West have tended to be so grand and all encompassing in scope that they allow too much room for loose generalizations. is time for cross-regional comparative studies to assume the dimensions of more limited and focused analyses that can minimize generalizations and concentrate on differential sociological and economic factors in a smaller and more manageable sphere of inquiry. This study, limited to a relatively short time frame, largely focused upon rural development, and centered on a disease that respected no regional demarcations or cultural boundaries set down by modern historians, will give generalists and world historians a base upon which to build theories of wider scope.

Nowhere is this more called-for than in the area of economic comparisons between Western Europe and the Middle East (which are still in their infancy). And nowhere is it more needed than in the almost nonexistent area of comparative East-West studies of rural development, the "prime mover" of preindustrial Europe according to many economists. For too long the few comparative studies of Western Europe and the Middle East have been focused on the subject of long-distance trade. It is time for comparisons that focus on agrarian systems, rural industry, and interregional trade.

This study is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the nature of the plague and the methodological issues in the book. Chapter 2 briefly analyzes the demographic impact of the plague in England and Egypt and then examines the nature of Egypt's landholding system and agrarian economy. Chapter 3 offers a detailed description of the economic impact of the plague outbreaks on the rural economy of Egypt. Chapter 4 evaluates the economic impact of the plague in England. Chapter 5 compares the total agrarian output ("agrarian GDP") of Egypt and England, using new research that allows us to estimate the value of the dinar jayshi and the cadastral surveys of Egypt. Chapter 6 examines prices and wages in Egypt's pre- and post-plague economy and then compares these price scissors with England's. An appendix gives a detailed mathematical and graphical analysis of the way that the marginal, average, and total products of labor are used in this study.


“I cannot think of a finer piece of work that I have read in comparative history. . . . I suspect this work will quickly become a classic in its field and can serve as a model for the comparative study of the effects of the Black Death in other regions of the world.Uli”
Schamiloglu Chair, Central Asian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison


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