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The Great Plagues of History


As I write this, the world is going through the coronavirus pandemic. The current situation is serious. I will echo what the media and the doctors are already telling you. Stay home. Avoid infection.


It is easy to think of coronavirus as an unusual and unprecedented event. In fact, plagues and epidemics are the “old” normal. The relative protection of the United States and Europe from waves of widespread killing disease has been an atypical respite in the normal cycle of germs killing thousands and thousands of human beings. Plagues and epidemics continue to be regular recurrences in the Global South.


Just in the 21st century alone, there have been 14 cholera plagues, three outbreaks of bubonic plague, the SARS epidemic in Asia, nine epidemics of dengue, four waves of ebola, Zika, the global outbreak of H1N1/09 swine flu and even measles. The measles outbreak, one of the smaller ones on this list, killed over 4.000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not bad for merely twenty years.


Things may have been easily worse historically, although we really don’t have the data to know. We do not have full written records for most of the societies of the world before 1800; we know very little indeed about the world’s health before 1500.


But some plagues were so dramatic that they left lasting accounts in the historical records. The great Typhus Plague of Athens lasted three years and killed over 75,000 people. The Antonine smallpox epidemic in Rome in 165 AD killed between a quarter to a third of all Romans. A third of the Japanese population was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in 735-737. The Black Death ran for some 22 years in the fourteenth century and killed between 10-60% of the European population. Bubonic plague took out 100,000 people in London in 1665-6 and then came back for a repeat performance in Marseille in 1722, taking out another 100,000 people. The big disease in the nineteenth century was cholera. There were no fewer than five great passthroughs of cholera – generally hitting the Middle East and Russia but frequently including Europe as well.


Plagues are awful. Period. Stop. But they can have compensatory benefits


One. Thousands of people die a painful fear-filled death. Thousands of others watch their loved ones die painful fear-filled deaths.


Okay, that is not a compensatory effect.


It is just a reminder that nothing discussed in the paragraphs that follow can match the sheer unabashed suffering associated with plagues.


Two. Plagues often lead to subsequent periods of economic growth. At the end of the Middle Ages, the rise of economic growth in fifteenth century Western Europe was a direct result of the Black Death. The massive die-off made labor scarce. Suddenly agricultural labor was scarce. Peasants used this scarcity as a bargaining advantage to reduce the amount of rent they paid and increase the share of agricultural surplus they kept for themselves.


This led to an immediate improvement in the standards of living for the survivors of the Black Death.


It also led to a rise in agricultural investment. Late medieval society was highly unequal, with the aristocracy having vast amounts of land and money and the general population having very little. These aristocrats were not always great farm managers. Lands were often acquired for political power or status. The attention of the nobility was often given to warfare and power struggles rather than the business of running their estates. Often their landholdings were so great that they had little idea about the individual circumstances associated with each of the smaller farms within it. A great deal of land went fallow because the landlords had neither the time, energy, nor interest in seeing that their lands were cultivated.


Peasants on the other hands were local. They could see what was going on with every square inch of their plots. They could identify nearby fallow land that could be farmed at a profit. They could see obvious gains that would come draining a fen or altering the mix between cultivation and pasturage.


When the nobles took everything in the form of high rents, peasants had little incentive to improve cultivation. When the peasants were keeping more on their own account, it gave them the profit motive to invest in their fields, and the working capital to invest in improvements. The result was a substantial increase in productivity and overall economic well-being.


Three. Plagues were an opportunity for people doing good works to extend their influence. Rodney Stark shows how Christianity largely expanded on the back of plagues. Ancient Rome did not have that many plagues - or at least did not have that many that survived in the documentation. Remember that we are likely to know less about plagues which occurred in the provinces and not Central Italy – because the documents are clustered in Central Italy. That said, the plagues that they did have were long and savage.


When plagues hit, they hit cities hard. The Roman generally responded to plagues by evacuating the cities and going to the mountains which were cooler and healthier. Anyone who was sick was left behind to die.


Christians were far more humanitarian than Romans. They stayed in the city and nursed the sick They not only nursed their own sick. They nursed the Roman sick. They fed them, they gave them water, they relieved the fevers as best as they could. In no small part, because of the Christians’ nursing, many of the otherwise doomed plague patients survived.


It comes as no surprise that many ex-patients converted to Christianity. The differences between the Romans and the Christians showed the ex-patients exactly who their friends were.


Furthermore, the Christians were modelling behavior that others perceived as admirable. Stark notes Romans encouraged other Romans to be as philanthropic as the Christians. Christians encouraged other Christians not to be as un-philanthropic as the Romans. Christians were admired as being kind. They became influential.


The positive behavior of the Christians in plagues led to massive conversions of Romans to Christianity. The rate of growth was so fast that Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 313 AD. This is remarkable given that in the 100s and in the 200s, Christians were being sent to the Colosseum to be eaten by lions.


No one should probably plan on having a plague as a strategy for furthering economic growth.


However, it is the case that once there is a plague, how one behaves in that plague can have a lasting historical effect.


Those people who do the right thing and take care of the needy will be remembered.


Those people who leave others to die will be expunged themselves from the book of history.

For More Information

The greatest book ever written on the role of disease in human history is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples.

For the role of the Black Death in ending the economic stagnation of the Middle Ages, there is a marvelous webpage on, a fantastic economic history website. The page is called The Economic Impact of the Black Death and it is written by David Routt, an economic historian at the University of Richmond. That webpage has a marvelous bibliography that will point you to everything you could ever want to read on the aftermath of the Black Death.

On Christians in plague cities in Rome, see Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. I have said this before and I will say it again. This is one of the best books ever written in sociology.

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