The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300–1600

The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300–1600

The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300–1600

Sevket Pamuk

European Review of Economic History: Vol.11, pp. 289-317 (2007)


One important recent theme emerging from the literature on early modern Europe is that some of the key structural and institutional changes that are responsible for the increases in incomes may have taken place rather early, in the late medieval period or in the era of the Black Death. This study makes use of the recently compiled real wage evidence for different parts of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean to gain further insights into this period. The era of the Black Death witnessed a series of important long-term changes in demographic behaviour, in agriculture, in manufacturing, trade and technology. Real wage series reflect the productivity increases from these changes. They also suggest the Low Countries and England were able to resist to a greater extent the general tendency for wages to decline during the second leg of the demographic cycle that began with the Black Death. A wage gap thus began to emerge between the northwest and the rest of the continent after 1450. The last section of the article explores the reasons for this divergence.

Until recently, the dominant view of the European economy during the early modern era was that it was unable to generate long-term economic growth. This interpretation was based, at least in part, on the available evidence for stagnating land productivity and urban real wages. It was also consistent with the prevailing interpretations of the Industrial Revolution. This picture began to change during the last two decades, however. The new and downwardly revised estimates of per capita income increases for the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries implied higher levels of per capita income for the earlier period. In addition, economic historians of the early modern period began to point out that the industrialisation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was made possible by
structural changes that had taken place earlier. Increases in agricultural productivity, urbanisation, national patterns of specialisation, the emergence and development of international trade networks have been cited amongst
the important changes that facilitated the rises in income in the early modern era.

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