THE TREVELYAN LECTURES, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, 2014
By James Belich, Oxford University
THE BLACK DEATH AND THE SPREAD OF EUROPE: PLAGUES, TRADES, AND WEST EURASIAN EXPANSION, 1346-1800
These lectures critically evaluate recent historical and scientific research on the Black Death of 1346-53 and its successor epidemics. They re-set late medieval and early modern Europe in a wider chronological and geographic context: a ‘Plague Era’ 1346-1800, and a ‘West Eurasian World’, including North Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe. The lectures then consider the effects of plague on Europe’s propensity to expand. In doing so, they challenge existing explanations of the continent’s ‘Great Divergence’ from the rest of the planet.
1 PLAGUE, GLOBALISATION, AND DIVERGENCE
This lecture attempts brief answers to some basic questions about the Black Death pandemic: When was it? Where was it? How many people did it kill? It then seeks to set the issues in context, by interrogating three concepts: globalization, divergence, and ecological determinism.
2 A PLAGUE OF MYSTERIES: EXPERIMENTS IN BIO-HISTORY
What was the Black Death? This lecture engages with the debate, scientific as well as historical, between ‘bubonists’ and ‘anti-bubonists’. It offers a hypothesis explaining the patterns and ‘random’ variations of the Black Death pandemic, focusing on plague circulation, evolved resistance, and the interplay of human and animal histories.
3 PLAGUE TRADES, 1350-1500
This lecture looks at the effects of plague on the European socio-economy, mainly 1350-1500. It engages with the debate between ‘pessimists’, who see the early plague era as one of economic depression, and ‘optimists’, who see it as a ‘golden age’ for common folk. It argues that European commerce actually grew after the Black Death, at first per capita, and then in aggregate. The leading edge in growth was a set of ‘expansive trades’.
4 PLAGUED POLITICS, PLAGUE TECHNOLGIES
This lecture examines the effect of plague on West Eurasian geo-politics, arguing that rising states co-existed with other forms of organization. All drew on a fluid trans-national pool of resources, which could be funnelled in the direction of expansion. It also makes the case for the plague-triggered emergence of a technological ‘expansion kit’.
5 THE GREAT DIVERSION: GENOESE, OTTOMANS, AND WEST EURASIAN EXPANSION
This lecture suggests that the Genoese were the midwives of early Iberian expansion. They had been forced to shift balance from the Eastern to the Western Mediterranean by the rise of the Ottomans The lecture then considers the extent to which the Ottomans and other Muslim polities participated in West Eurasian expansion.
6 POST- PLAGUE LABOUR: SLAVES, SOJOURNERS, AND THE SETTLER DIVERGENCE
This final lecture suggests that West Europeans and Ottomans were the two great slave-taking cultures of the modern world, and that plague helped trigger this development. It also introduces the concepts of a ‘crew culture’, which crossed West Eurasia, and a ‘settler divergence’, which was restricted to certain parts of it. Finally, it sums up the argument and briefly considers its implications for the 19th century rise of Europe.