The Global Impact of the Black Death

Essay, 2006

12 Pages

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The Black Death of the fourteenth caused massive devastation on three continents, and in a sixty year period from 1340 to 1400 it killed over a million people each year. One estimate is that Africa lost 15 percent of its population, Asia 16 percent, and Europe 32 percent.[1] This massive population decline broke what Herlihy called the “Malthusian Deadlock” in Europe, and set the continent on the path towards modernization and industrialization.[2] For this reason among others, Europe has generally been the focus of most research and writing about the Black Death, despite the important impacts it had on other areas throughout the world. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the various effects of the fourteenth century plague on several different regions- Central Asia, China, India, Egypt, Byzantium and Western Europe. It will also examine in more depth the impact of the plague on economic, military and religious development throughout the world.

In order to understand the political situation of the world during the Black Death, one must first understand the effects of the dissolution of the Mongolian Empire. During the thirteenth century the Mongolian hordes had created the largest land empire the world has ever seen, but due to the lack of administrative prowess or a sense of purpose among the ruling elite, the Mongol Empire soon collapsed into a group of Khanates ruled by various factions of the Changisid family. However despite this break up an informal “cultural and commercial empire”[3] remained intact, and trade still flourished throughout Central Asia. Yet, by the mid-fourteenth century this empire suddenly dissolved and trade collapsed.

The Golden Horde, which included much of modern-day Kazakhstan and the surrounding areas, has received the most detailed study of the plague in Asia, mostly because it was the point from which the Black Death was brought to Europe by Italian Merchants. It was struck by the plague in its major cities, starting with Khorazm in 1345 and Saray in1346.[4] During this time the Golden Horde was ending a long war with the Il-Khanate to the south, and was eventually divided by civil war between the Blue Horde and the Princes of the Right Hand. The latter eventually lost the civil war, probably due to the fact that it had a more urbanized population, and thus was more susceptible to the plague. Yet, despite their victory, the Blue Horde was never able to fully revive the kingdom’s former prosperity and the era of large cities and long distance trade on the western steppe came to an end.

Persia and Mesopotamia, the heartlands of the Il-Khanate, were also ravaged by the plague; but it only managed to complete the destruction had been started by the war with Golden Horde. When the Black Death reached Baghdad in 1349 trade had already been fled to the north or south, and the city was impoverished. The combination of disease, poverty and war isolated this area for the next several hundred years.

The most dramatic example the collapse of the Mongol successor states was China. Many Western and Muslim sources point to China as the source of the plague, but it is not known when the plague first came to China, and it is unlikely that it actually originated there. A seventh century doctor Sun Szu-mo described plague in his medical books, but it not directly mentioned again in the historical texts until the seventeenth century.[5] Nevertheless many epidemics are described by the Chinese sources which may or may not have been the plague and Wu Lien-teh, the famous early twentieth century plague doctor believed that the plague struck China in the 1330’s.

The fourteenth century found China in the midst of a large scale rebellion against the Mongols who had taken control of the country under Genghis Kahn. Unlike the other Mongolian conquerors the Yüan dynasty had never integrated itself into Chinese culture and had estranged many subjects through its policies. The plague certainly aggravated this situation for the Chinese peasantry and was at least partially responsible for their rebellion. Even the rebel leader Cho Yüan-chang, who later became the first Ming Emperor, had been personally effected lost both of his parents to the disease, and this may have intensified the strict Confucianism that characterized his reign.[6] It is even possible that the Chinese historians blamed the plague on the Mongols, as it was considered a sign of the loss of the Mandate of Heaven that natural disasters and rebellions had rocked China. The population of the Chinese Empire was cut in half between 1200 and 1393 by the plague, but the histories blame these deaths almost exclusively on Mongolian barbarity. It is likely that they saw the two as one in the same.[7]

Unfortunately for the Yüan the plague exhausted the desperately needed supply of reinforcements from the steppes and the troops which were once unconquerable were quickly overrun by the Chinese rebels.[8] The plague seemed to have abated somewhat after the expulsion of the Mongols, probably due to the lack of contact with outsiders imposed by the new conservative elite.[9] This enabled China to experience an economic recovery in the late fourteenth century that was unique for the time period.

As with China there is considerable debate about when the plague entered India. Although it is the home of the modern discovery of the Bubonic Plague, the exact date and place of the original arrival of the disease is unknown. Some sources suggest that the plague entered India in the eleventh century; others that it first appeared in the sixteenth, but most sources agree that it affected India in the early fourteenth century along with the rest of Eurasia.

During that time the Delhi Sultanate was experiencing a major crisis. Nearly a decade of bad crops and drought combined with the failure of the Muslim rulers to provide adequate aid to their subjects to stimulate rebellion among the population. In 1336 a Hindu kingdom in southern India named Vijāya-nagar was formed in opposition to the Sultanate by Harihāra who had converted to Islam when he was younger in order to gain a government post, but reconverted to Hinduism in rebellion to the Sultanate. The Muslim population rebelled as well; Bengal became an independent Sufi nation and new Sultanates were founded among the Deccan and Madura.[10] India would not be united in any significant way until the invasion of the Moguls. The plague may not have played much more of a role than as a catalyst within India, but the collapse of the surrounding countries and sharp decline in trade due to the Black Death finally destroyed the Delhi Sultanate.

Africa was also affected by the Black Death, especially in Egypt. During the fourteenth century the Mamluks, who had originally come as mercenaries from the Black Sea area ruled Egypt. They maintained a close economic and political relationship to their former homeland, and it is hardly surprising that the Black Death spread to them quickly after it had reached the Black Sea. Both Egypt and Europe were devastated by the arrival of the Black Death, but unlike Europe the reoccurrences of the plague in Egypt had a far more devastating effect- in fact the cumulative effects of these reoccurrences over the following centuries had a higher death toll than the Black Death itself.[11] This may be accounted for by the much greater rural presence of the plague among the Egyptians than in Europe so much so that Upper Egypt was virtually deserted despite the large amounts of normally cultivated land[12]. The Egyptian peasants suffered not only from the plague but also from the death of draft animals and drought which increased the indebtedness and poverty of the peasantry.[13]

A series of disasters in Egypt began with the Black Death that eventually plunged the Mamluk Sultanate into a general crisis from which they never fully recovered.[14] After the death of an-Nasir in 1340 the Mamluk Empire was racked with civil war. The Bedouins, who unsurprisingly were less effected by the plague than city or village dwellers, also increasingly disrupted agricultural production through raids, which aggravated the crisis.[15] Perhaps most damaging of all, the wealth per capita in Egypt plummeted, while in other areas of the world it remained stable, if not actually increasing. Poverty and war together prevented the Egyptians from playing a major economic or political role through the following centuries.

Like Egypt the Byzantine Empire was situated on a major trade rout, and thus very vulnerable to the Black Death. Constantinople in the fourteenth century was a city under siege from the Slavic tribes to the north and Ottoman Turks to the east. Nevertheless the city was experiencing unprecedented economic activity generated by the increasingly lucrative Black Sea trade. Also, despite the incessant wars, the population of the Byzantine Empire had steadily been increasing since the ninth century, and had reached a demographic breaking point.[16] Civil Wars began in the 1320s, and came again in the 1340s and only created massive problems which aggravated the Black Death when it arrived in 1348. The death rate was massive, and some contemporary estimates state that in the capital of Constantinople eight out of every nine people died.[17]

The Serbs, Turks and Bulgarians, unlike the highly urbanized Byzantines, were mostly spared from the worst of the plague, and this enabled them to firmly establish themselves within the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and eventually to overrun it. By the end of the fourteenth century the Byzantines were in a position to recover economically yet by that point the effects of the plague had been exploited by the Serbs and Turks to the point that the state could no longer profit from such a recovery. Thus while the Black Death can not explain the decline of the Byzantines from an important power to a small one, it certainly can account for their “decline from a small power to a negligible one”[18]

The other medieval Christian stronghold, Western Europe, has been the subject of most of the literature on the effects of the Black Death. It will here suffice to only mention some of the general impacts of the plague throughout the region and to highlight some of the unique experiences of the Black Death in Europe. The most significant difference between this area and those mentioned above is that all of the other areas were politically unified empires while Europe was made up of large and small kingdoms. While this may have allowed for a more regional innovation in methods of preventing the plague it also created a lack of a general policy throughout the region that may have lead to higher death rates. Furthermore the European tendency towards a more local economy had created an economic resiliency which enabled a much more substantial and rapid economic recovery than in other parts of the world. Jaques LeGoff even claimed that the Black Death converted time from the prerogative of religion to the arena of merchants.[19]

Perhaps the most far reaching and significant global impacts of the plague were the economic ones. For example there is little evidence that the Black Death ever reached the flourishing African kingdom of Mali that had prospered during the thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Nevertheless this kingdom collapsed as trade dried up due to the death from the Black Death of their partners to the north and east.

Central Asia is the most important example of the general collapse of trade. With the destruction of the Golden Horde and the devastating effects of the plague in Constantinople the center of trade in the Mediterranean shifted westward to the Italian peninsula, greatly increasing the wealth of the already prosperous city states. The center of caravan trade also shifted eastward to China, and for the most part land based trade between Europe and the Far East became sporadic at best, and this lead to a rise in the need for trade to be conducted by sea. In Europe this caused the development of better sailing equipment and techniques. Meanwhile in China the Emperor Yung-lo commissioned the construction of a large fleet in the early fifteenth century.[20] Eventually the Chinese limited their maritime expansion, but the Europeans, who were desperate to reestablish economic contact with the east, continued to explore and make nautical advancements, which eventually lead to the discoveries of Columbus and the other explorers.[21]

Another thing that the Black Death helped to change throughout the world was the ways that wars were fought. The military impacts of a large decline in population due to the Black Death are fairly obvious; fewer people meant fewer soldiers. The first to suffer were armies that required large amounts of infantry to implement their strategy, such as the English and Byzantines. Furthermore, in order to be effective infantry had to be concentrated into small areas, both on the battlefield and in camps. When this is added to the fact that many of these soldiers lived in cramped barracks in the large cities to maintain order when they were not in the field, it is hardly surprising that there was a high mortality rate among the soldiers.

Furthermore because the Mongol successor states in Central and Eastern Asia and the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt could not receive reinforcements from their traditional homelands it became increasingly difficult these states to maintain control over the ethnic majorities they ruled.[22] Not only was it impossible to receive reinforcements, but it became increasingly difficult to move troops long distances as shortages in supplies and manpower beset the countryside and the infrastructure decayed. Thus the rebellions that were very widespread in Asia throughout the late fourteenth century were much more likely to succeed because their armies were made of local troops, and were much more likely to receive popular support.

However, despite the military difficulties caused by the Black Death there was one overriding factor, the need for profit, which caused an actual increase in warfare during the late fourteenth century. As trade and the number of people paying taxes plummeted due to the plague, so too did the income of the rulers. The traditional solution to such a situation was the conquest of richer neighbors, and many leaders attempted to do so after the plague.[23]

Probably most significant to military development the demographic and economic consequences of the Black Death created a need for more efficient and cost effective weapons and soldiers. Arguably, this paved the way for the introduction of gunpowder and other important military developments that followed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Religion was another aspect of civilization that was affected by the Black Death in various ways and to different degrees throughout the world. An increase in mysticism was the major factor that all world religions had in common as a response to the tremendous mortality rate.[24] This probably had an influence on the Hindu rebellions in India and with the formation of the Ming dynasty in China. Despite these mystical and political influences, the theology of the Eastern Religions remained mostly the same.

However this was not the case in the west. While the eastern religions had largely already dealt with the question of human suffering, it remained a difficult question for the major Semitic Religions, Islam and Christianity, to address without questioning either the omnipotence or mercy of God.[25]

The Muslims scholars dealt with this question by citing three traditional religious principles:

1. That Muslims should not enter or flee from a plague-stricken land.
2. The plague is a martyrdom and a mercy from God for a Muslim and a punishment for an infidel.
3. There is no infection (contagion).[26]

These principles caused a considerable amount of tension within Muslim society. The first may have caused the above mentioned higher mortality rate from reoccurrences of the plague in Egypt. The second tenant is the most innovative and interesting, it certainly provided comfort for the family of those killed by plague by assuring them that their loved ones were in heaven, a guarantee which their contemporaries in Europe did not receive from the Catholic Church.

The second and third principles together were interpreted to mean that the faithful should not take any precautions against the plague, and quite naturally few people were willing to do that. Many turned to medicine or magic in an attempt to save themselves from the horrors of the Black Death, but both of these tendencies were criticized by the religious hierarchy, and this created animosity between the clergy and laity. The importance of science, particularly medicine, in Islamic society was also diminished by these attacks from the religious leaders, and Muslim technology, which had been losing ground to the Christians since the twelfth century, finally reached a point from which it was never able to recover.

Christian theology and institutions were also threatened by the Black Death. Confidence in the rational theology of Thomas Aquinas suffered in the face of seemingly random death and destruction. Even more disastrously priests and monks died of rapidly during the Black Death and their replacements were likely to have been quickly and poorly trained and were less likely to be able to adequately respond to the difficulties people were experiencing.[27] As mentioned above there was an increase in mysticism among Christians, in both Orthodox and Heretical forms. This tendency can clearly be seen in the increased focus on the body of Christ in the Mass.[28] The church nevertheless remained mostly committed to its traditional philosophy and rejected groups such as the Flagellants who espoused radical ideas about how to remedy the plague.

Furthermore the church remained closely connected to the medical community, mostly because it had trained most of the physicians throughout Europe, and as both the medical and religious establishments failed to stop the Black Death many people became dissatisfied with traditional ways of thinking. This drive for new ideas was coupled with the need for more clergy, and resulted in an increased demand for higher education. Although five universities were closed during the Black Death fifteen were created shortly afterwards, in all an increase of one third.[29] The staffing of these universities also spread some unorthodox ideas throughout Europe, such as those of the Lollards from England. Indeed because of this spread of ideas and the beginning of several practices such as the selling of indulgences during the Black Death, many historians have linked the plague to the Protestant Reformation.[30]

Throughout history the Black Death has been seen as the result of God’s wrath or a classical Malthusian crisis brought on by overpopulation. Even more complex than the debate over the origin of the plague has been the question of its consequences. Many have called it a turning point in history, while other historians have decided it was merely a catalyst that leads to the culmination of centuries of tendencies. Nevertheless the Black Death was is the key to understanding the late Middle Ages, and whether the Black Death was a cause or result of the many changes that happened during the late fourteenth century, there can be little doubt that the trends that started then created the modern world.


[1] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004)

[2] David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)

[3] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004)

[4] Christopher P. Atwood, Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongolian Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 207.

[5] Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History (Townbridge, UK: Cromwell Press, 2004), 41.

[6] Rayne Kruger, All Things under Heaven: A Complete History of China (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

[7] William H. McNeill, Plagues and People (New York: Random House, 1976), 199-200.

[8] Ibid., 200.

[9] Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History (Townbridge, UK: Cromwell Press, 2004), 42.

[10] Stanley Wolpert, “The Tughluq Dynasty in India,” in The 1300’s: Headlines in History, ed. Stephen Currie (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001), 202.

[11] Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 4.

[12] Ibid., 161.

[13] Ibid., 156-159.

[14] Ibid., 281.

[15] Ibid., 281.

[16] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 838.

[17] George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969)

[18] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 840-841.

[19] Robert S. Gottfried, “The Devastating and Far-Reaching Effects of the Black Death,” in Great Disasters: The Black Death, ed. Jordan McMillan (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2003), 76-78.

[20] Rayne Kruger, All Things under Heaven: A Complete History of China (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 297-281.

[21] Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 417-420.

[22] William H. McNeill, Plagues and People (New York: Random House, 1976), 200.

[23] Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (New York: Pi Press, 2006)

[24] Robert S. Gottfried, “The Devastating and Far-Reaching Effects of the Black Death,” in Great Disasters: The Black Death, ed. Jordan McMillan (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2003), 77.

[25] Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 9; Robert S. Gottfried, “The Devastating and Far-Reaching Effects of the Black Death,” in Great Disasters: The Black Death, ed. Jordan McMillan (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2003), 73-75.

[26] Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 109.

[27] William H. McNeill, Plagues and People (New York: Random House, 1976), 194-195.

[28] Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it made (New York: Perennial, 2001).

[29] Anna Montgomery Campbell, The Black Death and Men of Learning (Kingsport, TN, 1931).

[30] Robert S. Gottfried, “The Devastating and Far-Reaching Effects of the Black Death,” in Great Disasters: The Black Death, ed. Jordan McMillan (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2003), 76-78.

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The Global Impact of the Black Death
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This was a paper which I wrote for a conference on my off time. It deals almost exclusivly with primary sources, so it has some weaknesses. It attmpts to anaylze the impact of the Black Death on the entire world. It would make a great book someday....
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Taylor Smith (Author), 2006, The Global Impact of the Black Death, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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