Oxford Centre for Global History Inaugural Anthony Gwilliam Annual Lecture: Why Europe? Y. Pestis. The Black Death and the rise of Europe

Join us on Friday 14 October 2022 at 16:00 for the Oxford Centre for Global History’s Inaugural ‘Anthony Gwilliam’ Annual Lecture by
Professor James Belich (Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History) on “Why Europe? Y. Pestis. The Black Death and the Rise of Europe”

The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in the Robin Geffen Cafeteria.

Lecture Abstract
In 1346, Europe and its neighbours were beset by a terrible plague, whose pathogen was Yersina Pestis. It halved populations, and repeat strikes prevented recovery for centuries. It came to be called ‘The Black Death’ and this lecture argues that it triggered Western Europe’s global expansion.

The lecture offers a new two-word answer to an old two-word question: Why Europe? Y. Pestis. The plague not only halved populations, but also doubled the per capita endowment of everything. For the first time, many Europeans had disposable incomes. Demand for silks, sugar, spices, furs, slaves and gold all grew. Soon after the Black Death, Europeans began reaching out beyond their own continent to meet these demands. To these motives for expansion, plague added the means. Labour scarcity drove more use of water-power, wind-power and gunpowder. Many technologies – water-powered blast furnaces, heavily-gunned galleons, musketry, eye-glasses – were ‘pressure-cooked’ into existence or florescence by plague, as was a new social formation, “crew culture”, which provided the manpower.

If plague had this effect in Europe, why didn’t the Middle East expand too – it also suffered from the Black Death? This lecture’s answer is that it did: Ottoman and Safavid empires also flourished after plague. Morocco, Oman, and the Mughals established colonial empires, at a distance from their homelands like those of Europe. Early modern “European” expansion was actually West Eurasian.

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