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The Boston Globe


Uncommon Knowledge

Villainous people are hotter

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Black Death, savior
of the economy
In the Middle Ages, Europe was arguably lagging behind its competitors to the East. So how did European nations come to dominate after the Middle Ages? According to a recent study, the answer is death, and lots of it. First, the Black Death, by killing a large fraction of the European population, allowed survivors to earn much higher wages, which allowed them to spend more on manufactured goods from cities and towns, spurring urban growth. Alas, this caused more death, because urban areas were overcrowded, disease-ridden “death-traps.” On top of that, increased trade spread more disease, and Europe was constantly at war, with armies causing deaths mainly by spreading disease, too. As the authors of the study put it, these “Horsemen of the Apocalypse effectively acted as ‘Horsemen of Riches’...because they jointly increased mortality, preserving post-plague wage gains.”
Although China suffered many deaths from the plague, too, its cities were cleaner and it wasn’t at war all the time, so it didn’t get the same creative destruction that Europe did.

Voigtländer, N. & Voth, H.-J., “The Three Horsemen of Riches: Plague, War, and Urbanization in Early Modern Europe,” Review of Economic Studies (forthcoming).

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