Friday, 3 January 2014

Stranger Than Fiction: The Black Death in the Middle East and Europe talk

A column dedicated to pointing out interesting tidbits of history, some of which would be cool to see in a fantasy novel or two.

This is a lecture by Stuart Borsch, an assistant professor from Assumption College's history department.  It was given at the "Epidemics Then and Now: Infectious Diseases Around the World" conference held at the University of Chicago in June of 2006.

I saw it on the Medievalists website.  The talk is fascinating, especially if you don't know much about Egypt in the middle ages, as its economics and irrigation system are what Borsch focuses on in his talk.  I'd encourage you to watch the talk, but if you don't have time you can peruse my point form notes below.  Questions start at the 39 minute mark.

- information and images of the Nileometer a critical structure for judging the extent of the flooding and knowing how the harvest would therefore go

- the Nileometer was closely watched by government officials, if the water level was too low they wouldn't get enough water for the winter crops, if too high the flooding would waterlog the crops and cause possible famine

- silt deposits from the Nile meant Egyptians didn't need to leave land fallow or add fertilizer the way other countries did, so a small area could feed a large population

- Mamluk Egypt, Mamluk was a political system whereby non-Muslims were purchased as slaves mainly from the Caucases and brought in to serve as soldiers.  Highly trained, their army was the only one to repel mongol invaders

- the Mamluk's took over Egypt in 13th C. and rulers had partial landholdings in various places (ie, no direct feudal connection with their land or people)

- irrigation system led by Coptic Christians that had agents in the villages

- loss of up to 50% of the population of villages due to the Black Death meant peasants had to work harder to do all the work while landholders demanded the same revenues they received before the plague

- in Europe landlords were forced over time to change their terms as peasants left areas that weren't economically viable and moved to areas with lower rents and higher pay

- because Egypts landowners were removed from their lands, they raised rents, not seeing the problems firsthand

- the irrigation system began to decay due to lack of upkeep, which in turn lowered revenues, etc..  Lack of incentives to make repairs led to a breakdown in the irrigation system which devastated the Egyptian economy.

- areas of parching and waterlogging led to failure of crops

- post-plague was better for the peasantry that survived in most of Europe as labour was redistributed in more efficient ways

- in Egypt however, due to the repression of the peasants by the aristocracy, many of the peasants fled to major cities, rather than settling lands that were still properly irrigated.  So things didn't improve much for them.  They saw prices rise and wages decrease.

About the Black Death and why it was so lethal in the 14th C.

- it had struck several times in the past in the Mediterranean (5th, 6th, 7th Centuries)

- diseases are successful if they mutate, spread easily and don't kill the host (so it can spread the disease).

- one of many theories of the origin of the Black Death is that there was an isolated reservoir of the disease that was spread exclusively between rodents and flees (the primary carriers) and evolved and mutated outside of humans.  In other words, the plague never went away but from the 7th to 14th C. it had adapted itself to humans (so it didn't kill them).  The theory goes that one strain was isolated from humans, mutating it over time in ways that it was not adapted to human bodies and become more lethal to humans but ultimately self-defeating (since it killed its hosts and killed them quickly, thereby killing itself over time when it could no longer spread).

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