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Culture, Health, History, Human

The Black Death would have favored the rise of capitalism

The wealth of a nation is measured by its income per capita (total economic output/total population). The latter increases only if the numerator grows faster than the denominator. For most of human history, when the numerator grew, the denominator followed suit, leaving the ratio stable. Income per capita increased only for relatively brief periods and in specific places, and often fell, even dramatically. Two revolutions that occurred in Europe broke this state of immobility: the Malthusian revolution, spurred by the Black Death (or plague) in the Middle Ages, which slowed the growth of the denominator, and the industrial revolution, which sharply increased the growth of the numerator. The former event has been considered a precondition for the latter because it allowed per capita income to rise well above the subsistence level. This created a demand for goods and the accumulation of wealth and human capital. The outcome was a revolution in technologies that pulled away from traditional agriculture. Thus, this complex interaction of diverse factors spurred the birth of the modern economic era. This includes the impact of women in the workforce, as suggested in a recent study by Voigtländer and Voth

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Triumph of Death
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid

For most of human history the increase of the total economic output has been associated with a parallel increase of the total population leaving the relationship (the income per capita) substantially stable. This parallelism was interrupted by the spread of the Black Death between 1348 and 1350, which reduced one-third of Europe’s population with an important indirect effect: with an increasingly abundant land labor became a scarce resource. This caused an increase in wages, a push to the development of technologies (such as the use of better plows) that allowed more intensive farming practices and also employment opportunities for women and children. A further consequence was the increase in the age of married women, thus a decrease in the birth rate.
This is the point, according to the economist, who takes over the religious factor described by Weber, to which you can attribute the differences in development between various regions of the continent with the Central and Northern Europe walked towards a rapid accumulation of economic capital and human, and the southern and eastern Europe, where birth rates and population returned to the levels prior to the epidemic in a relatively short time.
Reference: Women, Fertility, and the Rise of Modern Capitalism by Alberto Alesina (economist at Harvard University) in Science 25 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6157 pp. 427-428 DOI:10.1126/science.1246228


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