The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study | Book Reviews

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. xii + 195 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-292-70617-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Certainly for my university students no topic in European economic history has proved to be more fascinating and engaging than that of the Black Death, especially with its late-medieval consequences. Its more general popularity is indicated by the recent spate of books on the Black Death, all of which are, of course, Eurocentric (cited below). This book, by Stuart Borsch, an Assistant Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, will likely attract considerable interest by providing a comparative history of the demographic consequences in Mamluk Egypt, whose economic history certainly deserves to be far better known, and England, as the most obvious paradigm for such a comparison. On these grounds alone, his book should be a major contribution to the economic history literature; and despite the criticisms that follow, he has indeed supplied some valuable and most interesting new historical evidence.

Inspired by Robert Brenner's observation (1976, 1982, 1985) that 'different [economic and social] outcomes proceeded from similar demographic trends at different times and in different areas of Europe,' Borsch seeks to demonstrate that the demographic consequences of the Black Death produced almost diametrically opposite results in these two countries (by ca. 1520). In England, the results, according to the author (p. 16), were that: 'the scarcity of labor in England destroyed the remnants of the manorial system, which was replaced by [non-servile] tenant farming. Wages rose, rents and grain prices dropped, unemployment decreased, per capita incomes rose, and the economy fully recovered by the 1500.' Except for the final observation, his conclusions are thus fully in accordance with the standard Ricardo model, which, oddly enough, is never mentioned in this book. He goes even further to contend that 'England's economy epitomized the most positive economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the wake of the plagues. The impact of the plague was the antithesis of that in Egypt,' where the economy suffered drastic and long-term contraction, rising grain prices, stable or rising rents, falling real wages and per capita incomes. Alas, I do not believe that his evidence and analyses justify these stark conclusions.

Organized in seven chapters, this study discusses the following topics: (1) the nature of the plague (bubonic), and methodological problems of demographic analyses; (2) mortality, irrigation, and landholders in Mamluk Egypt; (3) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of Egypt; (4) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of England; (5) the Dinar Jayshi money-of-account and agrarian output in Egypt, which is then compared to England's contemporary agrarian outputs; (6) a re-evaluation of estimates of prices and wages in both countries; and then (7) a summary of his major conclusions (with a supplemental appendix on marginal productivity models).

Comparative history thus offers us the prospects of insights into the nature of basic historical problems that might well be ignored by a focus on one just one country or region. It has, however, the inherent disadvantage that it defies, so to speak, the law of comparative advantage: in that few historians can be masters of more than one field in order to provide the insights from specialization. Borsch, who devoted two years to archival research in Egypt, has acquired a wealth of knowledge whose results, for Mamluk Egypt, I cannot properly judge, while I must disagree with many of his conclusions about the economy of late medieval England, and thus with some of the essential comparisons that he had presented. He has, to be sure, compiled an impressive bibliography on late-medieval England, but with some curious lacuna (he is aware of my earlier but not later publications) -- leaving me with a possibly unfair impression that he has cherry-picked his sources and evidence to sustain his often provocative theses.

Yet even with his own statistics, Borsch's statement that England's 'economy [had] fully recovered by 1500' cannot be taken seriously. First, in citing Mayhew (1995a), he indicates that England's population had fallen from about 6.0 million ca. 1300 to about 2.25 million in the early 1520s. While the latter estimate is now generally accepted (see Cornwall 1970, Blanchard 1970, Campbell 1981), the former estimate of 6.0 million for 1300, which originated with several studies by Michael Postan (1950, 1959, 1966) -- especially in his attack on the more modest estimates of Russell (1966) -- is now in much dispute, even if it still does prevail as the majority opinion. Recent studies, devoted to the 'Feeding the City [of London] Project' (Campbell, Galloway, Keene and Murphy 1993, Nightingale 1996), have convinced me that the population of England ca. 1300 could not have exceeded 4.75 million, and was probably much closer to 4.0 million. Note that a modest compromise estimate of 4.5 million is still double the size of the English population in the early 1520s. If we were to entertain the higher if still conventional estimate of 6.0 million, can we seriously believe that England lost almost two-thirds of its population in the ensuing two centuries -- a vastly greater demographic loss than that experienced by any other region of Europe? Can we believe that England, despite very extensive economic development in the ensuing centuries, was unable to regain that medieval level of population until the very eve of the Industrial Revolution era (with an estimated population of 6.15 million in 1756)? That 6.0 million figure is also used to estimate England's GDP in 1300 -- thus rendering this estimate highly suspect, as is the comparison with Egypt's population, also supposedly about 6.0 million at the time of the Mamluk land survey of 1315. His admissions that 'we do not have exact figures for Egypt's population' (p. 90), nor indeed any estimates for that population in the early sixteenth century, provide an even more serious problem, to be considered later.

If England's population in the 1520s was only half (rather than just a third) of that sustained in 1300, how can anyone speak of economic recovery? The retort may be that per capita incomes had risen since the Black Death, a contention discussed below, when we must differentiate the issues of rising real incomes for those fully dependent on wages, a small minority, from the question of per capita income for society as a whole. To be sure, economists and historians continue to debate whether or not we should measure economic growth in aggregate or per capita terms. A more modern example is the debate about the comparative economic performance of France and the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1910, the population of the UK rose almost four-fold, from 10.7 to 40.9 million (+282.2%), while France's population rose only 45.1%, from 27.3 to 39.6 million. Defenders of the French contend that, from the 1850s, its per capita income rose at a faster rate (overall: 207% vs. 197%) -- ignoring the fact that in 1910 the French per capita income was only 67.8% of the British (Crafts 1983). The more important question -- for both the modern and medieval periods -- is the view, held by many, that genuine economic growth is almost always accompanied by and manifested by population growth. As Ralph Davis (1973, p. 16) once reminded us, 'the economy of modern Europe would never have come into existence on the basis of population decline.'

There are other data to refute the notion of England's supposedly 'complete' economic recovery by ca. 1500, specifically concerning the woolen textile industry, whose rapid post-Plague rise Borsch cites as major evidence for English economic growth in the later Middle Ages. But he never bothers to explain why England underwent this transformation from being principally a raw material exporter (wool) to a manufacturing exporter (cloth). The answer, in fact, lies in the totally unintended, inadvertent consequences of English fiscal policies, in financing the Hundred Years War from its very outset (1337-1453): the exorbitant taxation of England's most lucrative export and most important agricultural commodity, wool, with a 'specific' tax (customs and subsidy) that reached 50% of the value of wool exports by the 1390s; and the crown's re-organization of the wool trade through a mercantile cartel (Merchants of the Calais Staple) that was designed to pass the tax incidence from domestic growers to foreign buyers -- principally the woolen cloth industries of the Low Countries and Italy (for whom that tax-burdened wool accounted for over 70% of production costs). Cloth exports, on the other hand, could not be organized in such a cartelized fashion; and thus export taxes, commencing only in 1347 (and thereafter fixed until 1558), amounted to no more than 3% of cloth export values. Consequently it became economically far more advantageous to export wool in the form of manufactured cloth. Using the ratio of 4.333 broadcloths (24 yards by 1.75 yards) to one woolsack (364 lb = 165.23 kg), I have calculated that the total volume of wool exports (wool and cloth combined) fell from a mean of 154,614 sacks in 1301-10 to a mean of 142,894 sacks in 1351-60, and finally to a mean of just 93,764 sacks in 1491-1500 -- a fall of 40% by volume.

One may retort that domestic wools converted into cloth exports were that much more valuable (even though wool accounted for more than 50% of the value of the cloth, even in England). Over this same period, the value of wool exports fell from a mean of £222,051 sterling in 1301-10 to one of £152,608 in 1351-60 to just £43,284 in 1491-1500 -- a fall of 72%, while the value of cloth exports (unrecorded before 1347) rose from a mean of £11,160.7 in 1351-60 to £152,179.7 in 1491-1500. That means that the combined value of exports fell from a mean of £222,052 in 1301-10 to one of £134,641 in 1401-10, but, while rising thereafter, had reached only a mean of £195,464 in 1491-00 (a net decline, in nominal terms, of 12%). Since, however, Borsch prefers to measure values in terms of kilograms of pure silver, we must note that the combined value of these exports, over these two centuries, fell from 70,984.34 kg to 33,741.80 kg -- a fall of 53%. In other words, to explain the difference between nominal and 'real' values, we must note that the pound sterling had experienced a devaluation (debasement) of 46.0% over these two centuries. Finally, in view of the obvious importance of this taxation for aggregate government revenues -- the most important single source -- we must note that the total value of the combined export customs on wool and cloth fell from a mean of £65,820 in 1351-60 to one of just £20,958 in 1491-1500 -- a dramatic fall of 68%; and that is just in nominal money-of-account terms. So much for the evidence on economic growth in late-medieval England.

The author is, however, cognizant of the ongoing debate about the late-medieval economic contraction, which is often if misleadingly called the 'great depression.' He asks (p. 65) how anyone 'could characterize the 1350-1500 period as a true economic depression,' when such a phenomenon 'entails more than a drop in total agrarian (or commercial) output because of a drop in population.' In his rebuttal of this notion, he is evidently unaware of recent critical studies by Hatcher (1996), Nightingale (1997), and Bois (2000), all of which provide substantial evidence and analyses of regional 'slumps' or 'depressions' for the fifteenth century (if not the entire period, for all of Europe). He might have defended that proposition by citing Bannock's Penguin Dictionary of Economics (1984, pp. 118, 373), which notes that 'there is no official quantitative definition of a depression, as is the case with recession' ['a downturn in the business cycle characterised by two successive quarters of negative rates of growth in the real gross national product']. Unfortunately Borsch then states that 'a real economic depression includes across-the-board, not merely sectoral (i.e. grain price) deflation,' revealing his ignorance of two prolonged periods of deflation in both England and the Low Countries: ca. 1375 - ca. 1425 (in England, a fall of 31% in the Consumer Price Index), and ca. 1440-1480 (in England, again a fall of 32% in the CPI). That ignorance is evidently explained by the complete absence of any reference to the well known and so widely used Phelps Brown and Hopkins [PBH] 'Basket of Consumables' Index and of their corresponding Real Wage Index (1956, 1957). Their subsequent publication (1981) of the price series for six commodity groups clearly reveals that the decline in prices during these two periods, if not exactly in tandem, was general, and certainly not confined to grains (analyzed with revised data in Munro 2005).

This leads me to my most serious criticism of the book: Borsch's comparative analyses of real outputs (GDP) and real wages in the late-medieval English and Egyptian economies. As indicated earlier, his comparisons involve the use of prices, values, and outputs expressed in grams of pure silver. To be sure, there may be cases in comparative economic history when there is no alternative to their use -- certainly we cannot compare levels in the nominal values of two entirely different moneys-of-account, all the more so when their changes within Egypt itself have not been fully explored and explained. The author is also aware of controversies concerning the use of silver values, but he does not take full account of two other major objections: (1) that in seeking to compensate for the effects of coinage debasements, the use of silver-gram values distort the changes by two false assumptions: (a) that the expansion of the money supply is directly proportional (though inversely so) to the percentage change in the silver contents of the coinage; and that (b) any ensuing rise in prices (inflation) is directly proportional to the increase in the money supply -- i.e., implicitly adopting the fallacy of the crude quantity theory of money; and (2) that the purchasing power of silver remains constant over long periods of time, when in fact it often changed radically (in terms of gold:silver ratios, from: 12:1 in the 1270s to 16:1 in the 1320s, falling to 9:1 in the 1380s, then rising to 12:1 by the 1450s, and to 15 or 16:1 by the 1660s).

The author's most interesting and certainly most original statistical calculations are for Egypt's gross domestic product in two years, virtually two centuries apart: those for 1315 (from a cadastral survey undertaken by the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad) and for 1517 (estimates made by Ibn Iyas, just following the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt). These intricate calculations based on a wide variety of evidence, involving extrapolations from later documents (1597 and nineteenth century), occupy a central portion of the book, and rightly so. Borsch states that, in making these comparisons, his major contribution was in ascertaining the true value of the dinar jayshi unit of account, which he reckons to be equal to 13.333 dirhams nuqra (evidently containing 26.4 grams of fine silver); but I have to note that the connection between his source, a document dated 1169, and the 1317 cadastral survey seems tenuous. For this 1317 survey, he estimates that the total value of aggregate agrarian output was 1,009,568.5 kg of silver (or 108,350.1 kg of gold); and that of the entire GDP (if agrarian output accounted for 75%) was 1,346, 091.5 kg of silver (144,467.1 kg of gold). For the second economic survey, in 1517, he does not dare to provide estimates of the Egyptian GDP but only the values of total agrarian output: whose valued is calculated to be 489,514.1 kg of silver or 42,120.6 kg of gold. At least implicitly concerned about the problem of changes in the relative values (bimetallic ratios) and purchasing power of the two metals, he offers an alternative comparison in terms of a grain unit called the ardabb (= 165 liters): an output of 38,337,056 ardabbs (= 63,256,142 hectoliters) in 1315; and one of 15,993,603 ardabbs in 1517 -- or so he tells us. Unfortunately, however, that latter calculation involves a very major blunder. For he first calculates the value of the aggregate agrarian output in the gold-based money of account, the dinar ashrafi (3.45g of fine gold), providing an estimate of 12,208,857.1 dinars. Then, estimating that the mean value of the three principal grains (wheat, barley, broad beans) was 1.31 dinars, he calculates the total output in ardabbs of these grains by multiplying the two figures. Of course, he should have divided 12,208,857.1 dinars ashrafi by 1.31 to get the proper estimate: 9,326,858.0 ardabbs (= 15,389,315.7 hectoliters of grain). Next, in this exercise, but using values only in terms of gold and ardabbs, he informs us that the overall decline in total agrarian output, from 1315 to 1517, was the following: 61% in terms of gold and 58% in terms of grain ardabbs (Tables 5.14-15, p. 83). The comforting closeness of these two percentages naturally convinces Borsch that his complicated methodology has been fully vindicated. Unhappily, the opposite is true when we realize how different the percentage changes in these three variables are: in terms of silver kilograms (which he ignores), a decline of 51.1%; in terms of gold, 61.1%; and in terms of actual ardabbs 76.7%.

To make matters even worse, he then compares these estimates of agrarian output in 1517 with those of the later Ottoman survey of 1596-97. The data from the latter are as follows: 17,299,090 ardabbs of grain (28,543, 498.5 hectoliters) -- for an increase of 85.5% (not the 8% increase stated in his text, on p. 87); 294,085.0 kg of fine silver -- for a decline of 39.9%; and 16,388.0 kg of fine gold -- for a decline of 61.2%. Even accounting for the price changes and changes in bimetallic ratios that accompanied the massive increases in precious metals (from South Germany, the Americas, and Africa) during the inflationary Price Revolution era, we would have great difficulties in explaining why these statistics -- for grain units and the two precious metals -- differ so radically.

His major comparison is, of course, with GDP estimates for England, in two years: 1300 and 1526, specifically chosen because relevant data had been supplied in Mayhew's aforementioned article (1995a). Mayhew had speculated -- with no real evidence supplied -- that England's GDP in 1300 could be valued at £4.66 million sterling; and as Mayhew himself admitted, his estimate is based 'on the assumption that population stood at about 6 million in 1300, [and] perhaps 2.3 million in 1526,' for which year he estimates a GDP value of £5.0 million, when the Price Revolution was underway, to 'allow for that price rise and permit a modest improvement in per capita living standards' (Mayhew 1995a, pp. 248, 250). Thus if, in the light of the previous discussion on the demographic controversy, we were to reduce the GDP for 1300 by one third, i.e., for a revised population estimate of 4.0 million, would we also have to change the GDP estimate for 1526? Mayhew (followed by Borsch), however, provides a somewhat less speculative estimate of the GDP for 1470 - at £3.437 million sterling (based on Mayhew 1995b and Dyer 1989) -- with the further assumption that England's population was then also 2.3 million. One may comment that these data provide too weak a foundation to make comparisons with the Egyptian data on GDP; but neither Borsch nor anyone else has alternative data to work with. Beggars cannot be choosers in medieval economic history, as my mentor (Robert Lopez) once told me.

In view of Borsch's persistent insistence on using silver values, we might assume that he would compare the changes in the English GDP, between 1300 and 1526, in terms of precious metals. Instead, he accepts Mayhew's estimate of the 'deflated' value of the GDP for 1526 -- and, in terms of Mayhew's use of the Fisher Identity (M x V = P x y, for which 'y' is real GDP), the price index (P) used is, of course, the Phelps Brown and Hopkins index (for which the mean of prices in the basket for 1451-75 = 100, as the base). Mayhew has not, however, used the price index for the specific years concerned but rather an arithmetic mean of the ten years ending in the specified year (i.e., 1291-1300, and 1517-26). In view of the often significant fluctuations in the annual price index -- especially around 1300 -- the value for the P-deflator can vary widely according to the years chosen for the mean. Indeed why not choose the five years before and after the years concerned to calculate the mean value for P? If that method had been chosen, the P value for 1300, for example, would have been 97.64 (or, 96.16 by my revised, corrected version of the PBH index), instead of Mayhew's (and Borsch's) value of 104.8. By the Mayhew method, the deflated value of the GDP for 1526 (when the P value is given as 135.1) is £3.88 million -- and that indicates a decline of 16.9% from the value of £4.66 million in 1300.

Thus, according to Borsch, the English experience compares very favorably with the Egyptian economy, which had suffered such severe decline, over about the same period: a view based Borsch's miscalculated estimate of 58% for grain outputs -- or the alternative ones of 51.5%, for silver values; or 61.3%, for gold; or the true one of 75.7%, for grain volumes. Suppose that we now calculate the changes in the GDP values in terms of precious metals. This time we must do so in silver, because England had been monometallic in 1300, striking its first gold coins only in 1344 (if we ignore Henry III's abortive gold penny of 1257). Borsch provides estimates of the 1300 GDP in those terms (Table 5.11, p. 80): 1,487,472 kg of silver (1,489,685.1 is the true figure) and 114,421 kg of gold based on an estimated contemporary bimetallic ratio of 13:1 (Spufford, 1986). He does not, however, do so for 1526, when we may calculate that the estimated £5.0 million GDP was then equivalent to just 767,219.8 kg of silver (or 68,758.9 kg of gold). In terms of silver kg, that means an overall decline, from 1300 to 1526, of 48.5%; and that is in accordance with the estimated decline of 51.5% for the Egyptian GDP over this same period, when also measured in silver kg (a comparison not involving changes in purchasing power, except for regional differences in the bimetallic ratio). In other words, the much vaunted contrast in the two countries' overall economic fortunes, i.e., in the declines of their aggregate outputs (agrarian only for Egypt), now disappears.

Borsch is, however, on a much stronger ground in comparing prices, wages, and living standards -- at least the real incomes for those totally dependent on money wages (a very small minority in both countries) -- over these two centuries. Indeed, his major and much valued contribution lies in providing Egyptian wheat prices for the periods 1300-1346 and 1440-1487 (Tables 6.1-2, pp. 93-95), and of wages (for custodians, doorkeepers, water-carriers, and readers, though for very few years: Tables 6.10-12, pp. 106-07). They are provided in terms of both moneys-of-account (dirhams and dinars) and in grams of silver and gold. If much of the data come from already published sources -- Ashtor's publications (1949, 1969) being particularly important -- a considerable amount comes from primary Arabic sources, and indeed from his own archival research. Certainly most readers will be quite unfamiliar with these data. The English prices -- grain prices only -- and wages of building craftsmen come primarily from Farmer (1991; but Farmer's publications of 1957, 1983, and 1988 are surprisingly not cited), a problematic source. For unfortunately Farmer provides annual means based on manorial data from a variety of regions; and his wage data also suffer from a 'compositional fallacy' (as do the data in Beveridge 1936, 1955) in that wages for craftsmen of different skills are averaged, producing spurious fluctuations -- readily observable in Farmer's tables -- that are based on changes in the composition and location of the workforce. He should have adopted the wage data for building craftsmen that Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955) had produced: principally for one region -- small towns in southeastern England -- using the prevailing standard wage for senior master craftsmen and their laborers (at Oxford, an unchanging daily wage of 6d, for masters, and 4d for journeymen, from 1363 to 1536). But, as noted earlier, he seems to be unaware of their publications and thus of their price, wage, and real-wage indexes, for the period 1264-1954.

While the PBH data therefore are urban, Farmer's data are not just rural, but manorial (providing other inherent problems); and undoubtedly we now need a proper survey of both sets of wages, with comparisons for London from the 1360s. There is, it must be noted, a very compelling reason why our analysis of real-wage changes is based on the experiences of European building craftsmen. For they are one of the very few groups that have left us with fairly continuous evidence of money wages paid for time-work -- by the day or week; for most wage earners in medieval and early modern Europe were paid by piece-work, a far more difficult measure, even when some continuous evidence exists.

Borsch's long term view, and comparisons of prices and wages in the two countries, when based on 'snapshots' of the early fourteenth and the late fifteenth centuries, is basically correct: grain prices in England had fallen, while those in Egypt had risen; and conversely, real wages in England had risen, while those for Egypt had fallen. He may also be correct in his assumption that agricultural land rents had also finally fallen in England (though many individual landlords were clearly better off), while remaining stable in Egypt.

His methods of calculation, however, leave much to be desired, especially for England, for which better alternative methods are available. Thus, in comparing the mean wages for English carpenters for the two periods 1300-1347 and 1440-90, he shows an 80% rise in nominal terms -- from 3.068d to 5.516d; but, when those wages are measured in grams of silver, they show a decline of 3% (from 1021.64 g to 994.95g). Surely that should reveal the folly of measuring price and wages changes in silver grams; for indisputably their real wages had indeed risen.

To be fair, Borsch does, of course, fully realize that the proper measure of real wages is the purchasing power of the money wage in terms of the artisan's standard consumer goods. But he makes his calculations only in terms of liters of wheat, for both Egypt and England, for the two periods 1300-50 and 1440-90. For English building craftsmen, his Table 6.15 (p.108) shows an overall rise of 102%, but a fall of 80% for the above-named Egyptian wage-earners. As one may well observe, 'man lives not by bread alone.' The great advantage of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins 'basket of consumables' composite price index is its weighting, based on consumption patterns in late-medieval household accounts: in which grains (wheat, rye, barley, peas) account for 20%; meat and fish, for 25%; dairy products, for 12.5%; drink, for 22.5%; textiles, for 12.5%; and fuel, for 7.5%. Van der Wee (1966, 1975) has found that these weights correspond to his evidence for household consumption in early-modern Brabant and has thus modeled his price index on this model, as have I for Flanders (Munro 2003, 2005). These price indexes for the Low Countries also permit us to compute the money-of-account value of the total basket of goods, year by year, and thus the number of baskets that master building craftsmen and their laborers could purchase with a year's money wage income (based on 210 days of employment, for reasons given in our publications -- while Borsch chooses a work-year of 250 days).

Phelps Brown and Hopkins, however, presented their data only in disembodied index numbers (1451-75 = 100); and they calculated the real wage index by the standard, almost universal formula: Real Wage Index = Nominal Wage Index/ Composite Price Index (RWI = NWI/CPI). Having acquired access to the complete set of working papers (Archives, British Library of Political and Economic Science), and the detailed calculations used in the construction of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins price index, I computed the value of each component in their basket (22 commodities) and thus the total value of the basket, in silver pence sterling, for every year from 1264 to 1700. Those calculations thus allowed me to compute the real wage in the same fashion: i.e., the number of such baskets that masters and journeymen could purchase each year (with 210 days of money-wage income).

When examined on an annual and on a quinquennial (five-year) basis, these real-wage data reveal a number of surprises -- which do not support the standard Ricardo-based view, nor, therefore, Borsch's view, on what happened to prices and wages in England following the Black Death. First, comparing mean prices for the 25-year periods before the Black Death (1323-1347) and after (1348-1372), we find that they rose, not fell. The mean value of the bread-grain component of the PBH basket rose by 26.25% (from a mean of 22.298d sterling to one of 28.152d); but most of this rise was inflation, for the value of the total PBH basket rose by 25.59%: from a mean of 114.386d (CPI: 101.41) to one of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35). Thus some portion of the grain-price rise was 'real': and its share of the PBH basket rose slightly from 19.49% to 19.60%. The even more striking behavior of prices took place in the next quarter century, from 1373 to 1397: when grain prices, in nominal terms, plummeted by 29.70%, from a mean of 28.152d to one of 21.706d. Again, some of change was due to monetary factors; for there was general deflation: a 29.4% fall from the peak CPI of 134.95 in 1376 to the trough of 95.25 in 1395. But since, in our two 25-year comparison periods (1348-1372 and 1373-1397), the mean value of the PBH basket fell only 17.23% -- from a mean value of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35) to one of 122.540d (CPI: 108.63), the much steeper fall in grain prices had a considerable 'real' component. Thus the grain component of the total consumer basket fell from 19.60% to 17.71%, over this same 50-year period. Similar declines in real prices can be shown for other agrarian commodities, especially for wool.

The behavior of these prices, both nominal and 'real' (or deflated), may help us to understand better the seemingly perplexing behavior of real wages. Certainly nominal wages did rise after the Black Death, but the rise of those for building craftsmen was relatively greater in urban than in rural (manorial) areas; and for both, the nominal wage increases failed to keep pace with inflation, until the mid-1370s. For such master building craftsmen, in Oxford, Cambridge, and other small towns of southeastern England, mean annual real wage incomes, when measured in PBH 'baskets of consumables' fell from a peak of 7.482 baskets in 1336-40 (RWI = 66.9, when 1451-75 = 100) to a low of 5.200 baskets in 1351-55 (RWI = 46.55) : i.e., real wages for such building craftsmen were falling both before and after the Black Death; and despite some subsequent recovery, real wages were still below the earlier peak as late as 1371-75: with a mean of just 7.310 baskets (RWI = 65.44). Thereafter real wages, in these terms, did rise sharply to reach a late-medieval peak of 12.066 baskets in 1441-45 (RWI = 108.02) -- a 132.0% rise over the post-Plague nadir; in 1496-1500, the annual mean was still quite high, at 11.336 baskets).

The rise, over this same period, in the real wages of their journeymen laborers was even more striking: a rise of 209.38%: from the nadir of 2.600 baskets in 1351-55 to the peak of 8.044 baskets in 1441¬-45. For indeed, in these small English towns, the average journeymen's daily wage rose from just one half to two-thirds of the master's wage over this period (4d vs. 6d daily for most of the fifteenth century) -- a change not observed in Flanders where the journeymen's money wage remained at one half of the master's (Munro 2005). Borsch, in noting the peculiar rise of an English thatcher's helper (journeymen) is evidently unaware of this more general, if peculiarly English, phenomenon.

Not all laborers, however, enjoyed such a change into prosperity. Thus on the Bishop of Winchester's Taunton manor, senior hired day laborers, while enjoying a tripling in their nominal wage, from 1.0d in 1348 to 3.0d in 1354, subsequently saw that rate fall back to 1.0d per day in 1364, where it generally remained until this wage series ends in 1415. Their real wage thus fell sharply with the continuing inflation, until the mid 1370s, and while experiencing some recovery with the ensuing deflation, their real wage in the early fifteenth century (to 1415) was only about 35-40% of that then enjoyed by the small-town journeymen laborers in the construction trades (see Munro 2003).

Borsch's explanation for the rise in real wages for English building craftsmen, though based on just a comparison of two 'snapshots' for the early fourteenth and the later fifteenth centuries, is a standard one that will command almost universal support: namely, a steep rise in labor productivity, as the obvious and seemingly inevitable consequence of radical depopulation and the consequent alteration of the land: labor ratio -- if we assume that England was still overpopulated on the eve of the Black Death. As Keynes (1936, p. 5) has reminded us, a basic postulate of Classical Economics is that 'the wage is equal to the marginal product of labor' -- though it is more accurate to define that equality as the marginal revenue product of labor. One problem thus arises: if the marginal productivity of agricultural labor rose but the marginal revenue product declined, with falling grain prices, would the result for wage determination be a wash?

There is yet another problem: for several recent studies -- by Farmer (1996), Raftis (1996), and Stone (1997, 2001, 2003) -- indicate that the marginal productivity of labor in the arable economy fell, while the marginal of labor in pastoral farming (especially for sheep) rose significantly. In recent publications (Munro 1983, 2003, 2005), in seeking to explain the behavior of prices and wages described above, I have called into question the marginal-productivity of labor theory to explain changes in real-wages. For, to argue, in micro-economics, that a rational profit-seeking employer will hire labor to the point that its marginal revenue product equals the prevailing wage is different from a more macro-economic explanation for wages that prevail across an entire economic sector.

My observation, in those two recent studies, was that the rise in real wages for building craftsmen in both late-medieval England and the southern Low Countries was a phenomenon that is generally -- if not fully -- explained by a combination of institutional wage-stickiness and a deflation induced chiefly by monetary factors: i.e., that nominal wages (in silver coin), having risen, though not in tandem the post-Plague inflation, then remained rigid while the cost of living fell. Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) also observed that, calling it the 'ratchet effect,' while correctly noting that in England nominal money wages, having fallen by 25% during the later 1330s and early 1340s (but less so than did prices), never again fell, over the ensuing six centuries, until the post-WWI depression, in 1921. There is no space to discuss this complex issue further in this review, other than to note that often rapid oscillations in real wage measures and indices -- almost always accompanying oscillations in the price level -- cannot logically be explained by any such sudden shifts in the marginal productivity of labor. Yet, in making regional comparisons of changes in real wages over long periods of time we may have to call upon a broader concept of productivity: namely, changes in total factor productivity (land, labor, capital), particularly in so far as those changes may explain changes in real commodity prices, especially those involved in a wage-earner's cost of living index.

Finally, I must also make another major observation in comparing the behavior of real wages for building craftsmen in late medieval England and the very much more limited group of Egyptian tradesmen: namely the fact that, at least from the later fourteenth century (but not after the Plague), agricultural prices and thus the cost of living fell in England while such prices and costs rose in Egypt. Of course, we would like to know why; but Borsch does not provide such a full explanation (other than one based on falling productivity in agriculture, with perhaps limited foreign trade) -- and probably no one else can adequately explain why the real cost of foodstuffs did experience such a significant rise in fifteenth-century Mamluk Egypt.

The relative behavior of agricultural prices and wages (and interest rates, if we had the evidence) has one more point of relevance for this review. Borsch attributes the decay of English manorialism and serfdom, from the later fourteenth century, in much the same way as does Brenner (1976, 1982): as a victory of communal open-field peasants who, when feudal landlords became economically and politically weaker, especially in losing support from the monarchy, were finally able to exercise a greater degree of market power in bidding down rents and bidding up wages. But a more complete explanation should involve economic rationality on the part of such landlords, who in now experiencing adverse changes in both falling agricultural prices (both grains and wool) and in rising costs gave up their former reliance on Gutsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime with a significant income component from market-oriented domain production of these commodities. Some historians (Holmes 1957, pp. 85-120; Britnell 1990) contend that during the post-Plague era of high agricultural prices, gentry and feudal landlords may have increased their share of the national income (though evidence on rents and profits is very thin). Thus, from the later 1370s to the 1440s, we find an increasing manorial shift to Grundsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime far more based on peasant rental incomes. In carving up their already shrunken domains into peasant leaseholds, thereby also dispensing with whatever labor services and other servile obligations that had remained, English landlords probably did improve the position of some peasants -- especially those with enough capital to work their extra lands. At the same time, of course, many such landlords benefited in the sense that these leasehold provided a more stable rental incomes, when agricultural prices and profits were falling; and thus with deflation, their real values rose. At the same time, however, as Campbell (2005) has recently demonstrated, Borsch, along with many other historians, has exaggerated the extent and burden of servile obligations imposed on the English peasantry before the Black Death.

Where does the Black Death itself enter this book and the review? Borsch has really very little new to say about the Plague itself, whose actual and direct consequences in Egypt still remain unknown. Furthermore, the timing of his publication is unfortunate in that three major and very important books on the Black Death have just recently appeared: those by Cohn (2003), Benedictow (2004), and Kelly (2005). Cohn has contended, with a massive amount of evidence, that the Black Death, the so-called Second Pandemic (1347-1720), was vastly different from the bubonic plague that was experienced in Asia during the so-called Third Pandemic (1894-c.1947): that the medieval Black Death spread with far, far greater rapidity, and was so much more virulent and lethal, killing a far higher proportion of the afflicted populations in Asia and Europe. If the mortality from the Black Death (initial onslaught) was perhaps 40% or more, the twentieth century mortality was no more than 5% in afflicted regions. Therefore, Cohn concludes that it could not have been bubonic plague, i.e., Yersinia pestis, the bacillus now spread by rodent fleas, according to the now standard view, and one uncritically repeated by Benedictow (2004). But Cohn does not compare it with the First Pandemic, the so-called Justinian Plague (sixth to ninth centuries), so well described as 'bubonic' (É¿ÉÕÉ"É¿É÷ÉÀÉ÷ÉÀ) plague by Procopius, historian of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65) and his Constantinople Prefect (see the Dewing edition 1961); nor can Cohn even suggest what this disease really was.

Borsch, if evidently unaware of Cohn's book, nevertheless is cognizant of the problems posed by comparisons of the Second and Third Pandemics. He credibly suggests that the Second Pandemic was a manifestation of a possibly mutant, certainly peculiar and extremely virulent form of Yersinia pestis, as does, most recently, Kelly (2005). Yet neither can adequately explain how the Black Death literally 'spread like wildfire,' especially given Cohn's cogent arguments as to why such a medieval transmission by rat fleas (if they could not survive without their rat hosts) was virtually impossible; but Borsch, citing Biraben (1975-76), does suggest that the human flea (Pulex irritans) may have been the prime medieval (if not modern) vector.

For Mamluk Egypt itself, apart from some fascinating anecdotal commentaries, Borsch is unable -- given the paucity of evidence -- to analyze the actual economic and social consequences of the Black Death. He does, however, offer a cogent and interesting thesis. Emphasizing that agricultural prosperity in Egypt had depended on a costly and complex irrigation system, based on networks of dikes, sluice-gates, and canals fed by the Blue and White Nile river systems -- with very large amounts of fixed capital and land stocks, Borsch contends that depopulation from the Black Death ultimately led to severe and destructive shortages of labor -- and to severe reductions in the marginal productivity of labor (i.e., proceeding in a backward direction on the ascending slope of the marginal product curve). Consequently, over ensuing decades, the required dredging, repairs, and general maintenance of this irrigation system could not be maintained, with disastrous results for Mamluk Egypt's agricultural production.

That plight has to be understood in the context of Mamluk social structures and landholding; for the Mamluks, a military aristocracy who were, by origin, imported Asian slaves, were totally unlike that of medieval England: a non-hereditary fluid social caste, with very insecure ties to their landed estates, with rapid property turnovers, dependent on rendering service and maintaining military-political alliances; a military aristocracy that chiefly lived in towns, apart from their estates, rarely speaking the Arabic language of their peasant tenants, and caring little about their welfare. Furthermore, as indicated earlier, Borsch believes that so many of these peasants were victims of steadily declining productivity and outputs, and thus of falling real incomes, while forced by the state-supported Mamluk military aristocracy to pay even higher rents; and thus they were unable to contribute to the maintenance of the irrigation system (which also had some classic 'free rider' problems). To cite Borsch's summary (p. 52): 'By the mid fifteenth century, Egypt's agrarian system had been badly damaged. The irrigation system was functioning poorly in many areas and lay in ruins in others. Badly damaged systems were overrun by Bedouin tribes: large sections of Upper Egypt [by far the more fertile region] and the eastern and western sections of the delta lay in Bedouin hands.' The documentation of the drastic fall in outputs, from 1315 to 1517, has been discussed above. As also noted earlier, however, the greatest difficulty that Borsch and other historians of Mamluk Egypt have faced is the lack of any reliable demographic statistics. While one may assume, from the experience of the Black Death elsewhere, a possibly drastic fall in population, are we to believe that the combination of labor scarcity and the structure of Mamluk landholding provide the only explanation? What roles, for examples, may Mamluk fiscal policies, the nature and changes in taxation, public and private investment in agriculture, etc., have played during the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? Perhaps those questions cannot be answered, though they should be posed to suggest a possible framework of alternative models.

As one of my colleagues, an economic historian of Mamluk Egypt, and one who has read this book as well, has commented to me: Borsch 'tries to break out of the mold and offer a new insight. The Mamluk period is the only one which offers any hope of computation, but as you can see, it is difficult to carve out any solid evidence.' The author does deserve, despite the criticisms in this review, to be commended for the very considerable and arduous research devoted to this study, handicapped of course, in comparison to historians of medieval England, with such paucity of reliable evidence. If this form of comparative economic history did not prove to be the author's strong suit, nevertheless his dedicated scholarship and contributions in particular to Mamluk economic history (which others may judge better than I) are to be commended.

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John Munro, Bullion Flows and Monetary Policies in England and the Low Countries, 1350 - 1500, Variorum Collected Studies series CS 355 (Aldershot, Hampshire; and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 1992)

John Munro, 'Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?' Research in Economic History, 21 (2003), 185-297.

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Michael Postan and J.Z. Titow, 'Heriots and Prices on Winchester Manors,' Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 11 (1959); reprinted in Michael Postan, Essays on Medieval Agriculture (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 150-85.

Michael Postan, 'Medieval Agrarian Society: England,' in Cambridge Economic History, Vol. I: The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, ed. M. M. Postan (2nd rev. edn. 1966), 560-70.

Ambrose Raftis, 'Peasants and the Collapse of the Manorial Economy on Some Ramsey Abbey Estates,' in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Edward Miller (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 191-206.

J.C. Russell, 'The Pre-Plague Population of England,' Journal of British Studies, 5 (1966), 1-21.

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David Stone, 'The Productivity of Hired and Customary Labour: Evidence from Wisbech Barton in the Fourteenth Century,' Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 50:4 (November 1997), 640-56.

David Stone, 'Medieval Farm Management and Technological Mentalities: Hinderclay Before the Black Death,' Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 54:4 (November 2001), 612-38.

David Stone, 'The Productivity and Management of Sheep in Late Medieval England,' Agricultural History Review, 51: I (2003), 1-22.

Herman Van der Wee, 'Voeding en dieet in het Ancien Régime,' Spiegel Historiael, 1 (1966), 94-101, republished in translation as 'Nutrition and Diet in the Ancien Régime' in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World , trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 279-87.

Herman Van der Wee, 'Prijzen en lonen als ontwikkelingsvariabelen: Een vergelijkend onderzoek tussen Engeland en de Zuidelijke Nederlanden, 1400-1700,' in Album aangeboden aan Charles Verlinden ter gelegenheid van zijn dertig jaar professoraat (Wetteren: Universum, 1975), pp. 413-47; reissued in English translation (without the tables) as 'Prices and Wages as Development Variables: A Comparison between England and the Southern Netherlands, 1400-1700,' Acta Historiae Neerlandicae, 10 (1978), 58-78; republished in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World, trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 223-41. Only the original Dutch-language version contains the statistical tables.

John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto (where he still teaches). He is currently an elected member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts; and of the Comitato Scientifico, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica 'Francesco Datini da Prato,' for which he has helped organize the May 2006 conference on 'Europe's Economic Relations with the Islamic World, 13th and 18th Centuries.' He was the medieval area editor for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, edited by Joel Mokyr (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003. Among his recent publications are: 'Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?' Research in Economic History (2003); 'The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiability,' International History Review (2003); and 'Spanish Merino Wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an Industrial Transformation in the Late-Medieval Low Countries,' Economic History Review (2005).

  • Geographic area: Europe (4), Middle East (6)
  • Time period: Medieval (3)
  • Subject: Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity (D), Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History (F), Markets and Institutions (W)


John Munro, "Review of Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study." EH.Net Economic History Services, Mar 13 2006. URL: