Thursday 11 July 2013

Was the Black Death a necessary cause of England's genius?


Why were the English the dominant nation of creative geniuses from Elizabethan times and for about 300 years?

Well, maybe they weren't but probably they were - and if so the cause may lie back in the Great Plague/ Black Death of 1348 onward

See figure 9 and Table 18

TABLE 18: English population, 1250-1700

Levels of population (millions) Year up to Black Death  Total population Year continued... Total population
1250 4.23 1400 2.08
1290 4.75 1450 1.90
1300 4.73 1490 2.14
1315 4.69 1560 3.02
1348 4.81 1600 4.11
1351 2.60 1650 5.31
1377 2.50 1700 5.20

Figure 19 shows that economic growth did not exceed medieval levels until after 1600, and the above table provides a possible explanation that the English population did not recover from the cull of the Black Death until about the same time - after 1600.

The idea is that the English population - which had already been selected for high intelligence in the early medieval period prior to 1348, was then subject to a fifty percent cull, differentially of those with lower intelligence (since the poor on average died at a greater rate than the rich), after which England had about half the population with a higher intelligence (and double the average per capita standard of living) - the English population then re-grew from this higher intelligence base and when it reached the previous size (after about seven or eight generations with lower child and young adult mortality rates) the creative explosion of the Elizabethan age foreshadowed many further generations of discovery and invention which included the start of the Industrial Revolution. 

So the Black Death provided a (delayed) kick start for intelligence, and that drove creative genius.


Was this distinctive to England?  


JamesP said...

In per capita numbers it was strongest in england,but I would also include the Holy Roman Empire and Scotland.

JamesP said...

If England had stayed catholic the selective pressure for intelligence would have been higher or lower?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JaP - Thanks - I haven't had a chance to check out the differential impact of Black Death by nation.

What is very strange is that the great late 14th century English poets (Chaucer, Langland, the Gawain poet) barely mention the plague.

This would fit with the fact it did not much influence their class of persons (given that disease and death always had been rife as a cause of premature death) but wrought its havoc mainly among the poorest.

The idea behind this explanation is that 'cultural factors' such as religion would not be major causes of creative genius - except perhaps to suppress it, and render it invisible (as among the Ashkenazi Jews before they emerged from the ghettoes). So I don't think Protestant or Catholic would make a difference - since they both allow for a high degree of cultural specialization.

(Orthodoxy might be a different matter, since in an Orthodox monarchy (ideally) all of life is theocratic formally/ politically subordinated to Christianity/ the Church.)

Maximo Macaroni said...

The plague of 1664-5 also worked havoc on the population of England, but not to the extent of the Black Death. Pepys' Diaries make it clear that anyone with wealth, position or power got out of the plague areas successfully. This reduction, after the harrowing of the English Civil War, could have had beneficial effects on intelligence and opportunity to use it.

Elijah Armstrong said...

Nat Weyl discussed this in MQ: