Economics and Business

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

Stuart J. Borsch, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. 195 pages.

In this cross-regional comparative study, Stuart Borsch marshals medieval economic data to address why, following the Black Death, “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” (dust jacket). After making a quick dispatch of antiquated theories and flawed research, he introduces new findings on medieval Egypt’s sharp financial downturn in contrast to England’s economic stabilization and upswing.

The author points out that both states were centralized monarchies with similar population levels and agrarian-based economies overseen by “big stick” aristocracies. Egypt had a modicum of arable land along the Nile; England had large areas of pastoral land and far more arable soil (pp. 16-17). In addition, Egypt’s nonhereditary ruling Mamluk elite, imported Caucasian and Central Asian slave children (some of whom actually ruled), became iron-handed absentee landholders: “A vast gulf separated the Mamluk warrior-landholder from the Egyptian peasant. A barracks-trained Turkishor Circassian-speaking Mamluk and a village peasant were probably as foreign to each other as Egyptians and Europeans” (p. 27). This social separation, which helped the landowning system to function well before the plagues, contributed to its breakdown afterward.

Borsch’s tome is meant for comparative and world historians, along with scholars of pre-modern Middle Eastern economic history. He notes that narrative chronicles, in tandem with other extant sources (e.g., chancery manuals), formed the lion’s share of his source materials. Cairene sources included unpublished institutional endowment deeds (waqfiyyat) from the archives of Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments. These deeds reference details of endowed structures and how the state handled and extracted revenue.

The author’s introductory chapter explains the plague’s three clinical forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. He hypothesizes that the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes all three forms, may have been a “mutant strain” of a less devastating bacterium that afflicted the Mediterranean region as early as the sixth century. The powerful new strain originated in Central Asia and raged through China, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere during the fourteenth century: “Plague depopulation, both urban and rural, was at least as severe in Egypt as in the more heavily stricken areas of Western Europe. ... Egypt lost roughly half its total population, taking into account the initial Black Death and subsequent plague outbreaks” (p. 15).

Borsch sets out “to find two economies with similar parameters (e.g., population, levels of GDP, predominance of agriculture, percentage of longdistance trade in the economy, royal control, etc.) so that a comparison of agricultural regimes can be carried out with a degree of normative control” (p. 21). In so doing, he is “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” (p. 11). He also argues convincingly that “the landholding system, not geography alone, determined the outcome for Egypt’s agrarian economy” (p. 19).

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