Between the 1330s and the 1360s, the Black Death killed between a third and a half of all the people in Europe, China, and the Middle East. To many contemporaries, it seemed like the end of the world; but in the last thirty years, economists have suggested that its consequences were anything but catastrophic. Instead of leading to economic collapse, they argue, the plague launched Europe’s takeoff by improving its land: labor ratio, doubling ordinary people’s incomes by 1450. In this talk I want to put Europe into perspective, comparing its experience of plague and economics between 1350 and 1750 not what happened in China and the Middle East in the same years and also with the economic consequences of plagues in the 2nd and 6th centuries. I try to show why some plagues lead to collapse while others do not, and ask what that tells us about the likely consequences of plagues in the 21st century.
Ian Morris is Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and Archaeology at Stanford University. He received his PhD from Cambridge in 1986 and taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Stanford. His most recent books are Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future (Profile, 2010), The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations (Profile, 2013), and War! What is it Good For? Violence and the Progress of Civilization, from Primates to Robots (Profile, 2014). He has directed archaeological excavations in Italy and Greece and is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.