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COVID-19: Plague and Trade by Philip Parker, author of History of World Trade in Maps

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
History of World Trade in Maps

By Philip Parker

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Throughout history, merchants have transported new goods and novel ideas to fresh markets. Hidden in their baggage, and their breath, they have also carried a more sinister travelling companion: disease. Particularly when trade has started between far-flung regions which have previously not been in contact with each other, the risk of pandemics arising has been acute.

Infectious disease terrified the ancients. Often seen as the judgement of the gods (or God), we have accounts stretching back to the biblical plague that struck the first-born in Egypt in the Book of Exodus. The first detailed description of a pandemic, however, comes from the Greek historian Thucydides, who chronicled the terrible toll inflicted on Athens in the summer of 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War. It was said to have its origins in ‘the parts of Ethiopia above Egypt’ and, tellingly, first struck Piraeus, the port of Athens, suggesting it had been brought by merchants. The disease, possibly typhoid, caused ‘discharges of bile of every kind’, wracked the bodies of the afflicted with violent spasms and killed so many that some survivors, unable to carry out the prescribed burial rites, simply found another person’s funeral pyre and tossed the deceased onto it. The impact on Athens was far-reaching: with its available manpower decimated and the stresses on an already fragile society accentuated, its war effort against Sparta was weakened, ultimately contributing to a defeat which undermined its democracy and destabilized the whole Greek city-state system.

The first pandemic that we can fairly securely ascribe to bubonic plague – the disease caused by the microbe Yersinia pestis, spread by rat fleas and whose most famous occurrence was the Black Death – hit the eastern Mediterranean in 541 during the reign of Emperor Justinian. This Justinianic Plague, whose ravages were catalogued by the courtier-historian Procopius, was said to have originated in Pelusium in Egypt and from there to have spread rapidly, ‘always taking its course from the coast’. Once the infection reached Constantinople, it tore through the imperial capital for four months, killing 5,000 people a day at its height. Estimates of the total death toll range from 25 to 50 million, substantially reducing the available manpower of an already weakened eastern Roman empire. The war of imperial revival which Justinian was waging against the Goths in Italy was already bogged down, and the loss of tax revenue and potential recruits that the plague caused undermined it further.

Recent studies, however, have suggested that the traditional view of the Justinianic Plague, which recurred around the Mediterranean on and off for the next two centuries, as the root cause of the near death of the Byzantine empire – leaving its eastern provinces vulnerable to the armies of Islam surging out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and to Slavs pushing down into the Balkans from the eighth century – may have been overstated. Analysis of pollen does not reveal any large-scale abandonment of agricultural land (an indicator of depopulation), nor are there finds of the mass graves we might expect from a catastrophe as dire as Procopius paints it. Nonetheless, even if it did not tip Byzantium over the edge, the plague must have reduced the resilience of a society that was already fragile, in an era where warfare and increased migrations were already endangering vital trade routes.

The case for plague (and trade) as a catalyst of change is much more clear-cut for the Black Death. It probably first took hold in the 1320s, migrating from steppe rodent populations among which it was endemic and infecting travellers passing through Central Asia. Paradoxically it was political stability that enabled its passage: the Mongol conquest of China in the 1270s created a vast domain stretching from Beijing to Baghdad in which merchants could travel freely (save for the payment of tolls), spared from attacks by nomadic raiders (a role the Mongols themselves had happily played until they turned to empire-building). By the 1340s, the plague had reached the Crimea, its passage assisted by a Mongol ally who pelted the Genoese defenders of Kaffa with plague-infected corpses, and when they fled in terror to ships and sailed back home to Italy, they brought the Black Death with them. The ‘Great Dying’ spread through Europe with terrifying speed, reaching southern England in June 1348 and Dublin later that summer, carried either by vessels from Bristol or by merchants travelling directly from Bordeaux. Parts of Poland and Scandinavia somehow escaped the pandemic, but even distant Iceland was touched in 1350, and by the time the dying was over and the buboes – the tell-tale black swellings of the gland – ceased to be a commonplace sight, between a third and a half of the continent’s population had succumbed.

The impact was profound. The survivors, at once relieved and traumatized, engaged in an orgy of crime, from stealing the clothes off corpses to murder: if the end of the world had come – as surely the plague presaged – how did breaking the law matter? In art, there was an increased focus on death and the morbid, with depictions of the Danse Macabre, where a skeletal death cavorts with figures representing all social classes, from prelates to peasants, as a warning that death can strike down anyone at any time (a tradition which continued into the sixteenth century with Hans Holbein’s masterful woodcuts). With the population reduced, pressure on land decreased and the peasantry, their labour scarcer than before, were able to exploit the changed balance of power with their landlords by loosening the feudal ties that bound them and bargaining for higher wages. The elite, predictably, reacted with coercion, with measures such as the Statute of Labourers (1349) seeking to peg maximum wages where they had been before the pandemic struck. A period of higher prices for grain partially offset the damage to noble incomes, but by the 1370s an agricultural depression set in that lasted for the best part of a century. This was accompanied by a general decline in trade, as the demand for goods dried up and even in the cities manufacturers struggled to find both labour and customers.

There were opportunities for the more entrepreneurial, as the shaking of long-established patterns opened up new markets, or labour shortages accelerated the adoption of new technologies. The English, who had previously exported their abundant wool to Flanders for manufacture into cloth, entered the market directly themselves, producing low- and medium-grade cloth for export. The Italian city-states, who had enjoyed a substantial share of this market, reacted by upgrading to luxury cloth, which the English interlopers could not produce, thus ensuring the continued prosperity of cities such as Milan and Florence (which endemic warfare and the involvement of France and the Habsburg Holy Roman emperors in bruising series of wars between 1494 and 1569 did far more to undermine than the Black Death).

What lessons do the pandemics of the past hold for the modern world, faced with the corrosive effect of COVID-19 on national economies and international trade and travel? The first, and already clearly evident one, is that the increasing ease and speed of travel brings with it risks: a journey that would have taken months or years in the Middle Ages – if it could be achieved at all – can now be completed in a matter of hours. It is rarely the case nowadays that diseases are carried from one population which has immunity to another which does not (like the smallpox that the Spanish conquistadors took with them to the Americas and which devastated the indigenous population there, and weakened the Inca empire in the years before Pizarro came to deliver the coup de grace in 1533). Instead, pandemics tend to be of zoonotic diseases, in which pathogens jump from one species to another (as seems to have been the case with COVID-19), in effect finding a new host which lacks immunity. Against this, we can only be more careful about trespassing on natural habitats where such diseases are endemic, in guarding against trafficking in exotic species, and in promoting international healthcare warning systems and cooperation.

Plagues in the past have reshaped economies and changed patterns of trade, as populations fell and the supply and demand for certain goods dried up (in the case of the Black Death an oversupply of agrarian land and an undersupply of labour proving the decisive factors). The mortality rates from COVID are nothing like as high as those from the Black Death (from which as many as 75 million may have died, from a much smaller world of about 400 million), but the world economy is infinitely more complex and interconnected than that of the fourteenth century and so the economic ripples are harder and faster. Nonetheless, they may, as was the case with the Justinianic plague, merely accelerate processes which were already underway – the decline of retailing in the high street as opposed to internet sales – or affect particular sectors more severely (such as restaurants, bars and entertainment venues which depend by their very nature on customers physically turning up). The impact of COVID may also be masked or swamped by other political and economic currents – as was the impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918–19, which killed up to 50 million people, but soon drifted out of the collective political consciousness as the disasters of the Great Depression and the Second World War unfolded.

The pandemic may destabilize our politics, not by killing kings and laying waste to dynastic houses as in the past, but by allowing extremists to take advantage of the economic dislocation to spread enticing messages of nationalist renewal. National economies that were already weaker and industries that were already struggling may take longer to recover, if they ever do so at all.
The message from the past, then, is that pandemic disease tends to act as a catalyst, an accelerant to changes already underway. For those individuals, industries and countries most affected, the result can, even so, be catastrophic. A wholesale transformation of society, however, only happens with disease events on the scale of the Black Death, or the smallpox epidemics which caused a demographic collapse among indigenous societies in the Americas. It is to be hoped (and with advances in medical science and the lower mortality rate compared to the worst pandemics of the past, there is every reason to expect) that COVID-19 is not such an event.

(c) Philip Parker

About History of World Trade in Maps:

Trade is the lifeblood of nations. It has provided vital goods and wealth to countries and merchants from the ancient Egyptians who went in search of gold and ivory to their 21st-century equivalents trading high-tech electronic equipment from the Far East.

In this beautiful book, more than 70 maps give a visual representation of the history of World Commerce, accompanied by text which tells the extraordinary story of the merchants, adventurers, middle-men and monarchs who bought, sold, explored and fought in search of profit and power.

The maps are all works of art, witnesses to history, and have a fascinating story to tell.

The maps include
• Çatalhöyük Plan, c. 6200BC
• Babylonian Map of the World, c. 600BC
• Stone Map of China, 1136
• Hereford Mappa Mundi, c. 1300
• Buondelmonti Map of Constantinople, c. 1420
• The Waldseemüller Map, 1507
• James Rennell Map of Hindoostan, 1782
• Air Age Map, 1945
• Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Dashboard, 2020

Order your copy online here.

About the author

A historian and Sunday Times bestselling author with The Northman’s Fury, who studied at Cambridge and Johns Hopkins University.
He has written widely on late antiquity, the early Middle Ages and world history, and his unique panoramic history of the nation was published by Collins: History of Britain in Maps.
He lives in London.

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