The Many Faces of Plague: Plague Epidemiology and Economic Divergence in the 17th-century

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationAcademic


For a long time it has been suggested that early modern plague in Northwest Europe was largely an ‘urban affair’, leaving much of the countryside untouched. This apparently contrasted with the wide territorial pervasiveness of medieval plague. In particular it has been suggested that the epidemiological regime of Northwest Europe in the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries was essentially that of frequent plague bouts, which tended to only affect the same cities and towns repeatedly, and were generally only offering a very ‘light’ impact on mortality rates. Scholarship in very recent times has contrasted this ‘epidemiological regime’ in Northwest Europe with a very different one seen in 17th-century Italy, whereby plagues were apparently infrequent, but extremely severe and affecting the city and countryside in equal measure. Some have gone further to say that this contrasting experience of plague may have been a significant factor in the shifting centre of economic gravity from the Mediterranean to Northwest Europe in the early modern period.
Using a new consolidated database of burial information from the Low Countries in the 17th century, this view is brought into question in this paper. For the Dutch Republic, the Southern Netherlands, and Northeast France, plagues tended to affect even the most isolated rural communities, to an extent that very few places were spared from infection. Results with regard to plague severity are more mixed: while the evidence from the Southern Netherlands and Northeast France tend to support the prevailing idea that 17th-century plague in the Mediterranean was more severe, evidence from the Dutch Republic shows evidence contrary to this narrative. In fact there are grounds for suggesting that the Dutch Republic’s experience with plague may have been even more severe than that seen in Northern Italy in 1630.
The broader general point made in this article, however, is to reveal flaws in the ways up to now we have approached economic divergences caused by plague from an institutional or societal angle. That is to say that plague was not a monolithic entity but there were ultimately many different ‘regimes’ of plague. Those arguing for institutional adaptions to plague causing divergences between large parts of Northwest, Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe (for example with regard to real wages) are not comparing reactions to the same shock, but also different types of shock simultaneous to different sets of institutions. Ultimately what is being suggested here is that our comparative approach to the economic consequences of the plague can only take place at a regional level within the same epidemiological regime, and the macro-comparison of the effects of plague is probably at an end
Period31 Mar 2016
Event titleEuropean Social Science History Conference
Event typeConference
LocationValencia, SpainShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational