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Thank goodness for the Black Death

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562)

The Black Death was, proportionally speaking, “the most lethal catastrophe in human history”, says Peter Frankopan in Prospect. After appearing in 1345, the deadly plague killed millions as it spread across Europe, Africa and Asia, with a mortality rate as high as 60%. But as James Belich argues in The World the Plague Made, the virus also sparked “a series of innovations, changes and development” that led to a “golden age” lasting more than 150 years. The main reason was, simply, that so many people died. When a population halves, the amount of resources the survivors are left with, per head, doubles. Suddenly people had a bountiful supply of “carts, wagons, horses, oxen, mules, boats, ships, barns and granaries”.

The high mortality rate also created a lack of manpower, which forced people to become more efficient. That was a big driver in “the shift from oar to sail in European shipping fleets”, and in the move from hand-written books to the printed word. (Belich describes the printing press, invented around 1440, as a “creature of plague”.) And with “fewer mouths to feed”, farmers had to travel further to sell their meat, creating an international livestock trade that led to the exchange of other goods and ideas. All these changes not only resulted in the common man enjoying a “materially better life”. They also helped Europe – which was much harder hit by the Black Death than places like China – become the world’s dominant power. Pandemics really can have “silver linings”.