June 15, 2016

Bones, Bacteria and Break Points

The Heterogeneous Spatial Effects of the Black Death and Long-Run Growth
  • Mark Koyama

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics
  • Noel D. Johnson

    Senior Research Fellow
  • Remi Jedwab

read more

Find the paper at SSRN

The Black Death killed about 40% of Europe’s population between 1347-1352. Historical studies suggest that this mortality shock played a major role in shifting Europe onto a path to sustained economic growth. Using a novel dataset that provides information on spatial variation in plague mortality at the city level, as well as a range of controls and various identification strategies based on the spread of the epidemic, we explore the short-run and long-run impact of the Black Death on city growth. We find evidence for aggregate convergence. On average, cities recovered their pre-plague population within two centuries. However, there was considerable heterogeneity in the response to the shock, hence local divergence. The Black Death led to an urban reset: cities with better geographical and non-geographical endowments did relatively well, while other cities collapsed. In particular, our results emphasize the importance of trading networks in explaining urban recovery. Furthermore, the Black Death led to the creation of new cities in areas that were relatively less urbanized before it hit. Our analysis thus suggests that the Black Death may have permanently affected the spatial distribution and aggregate level of economic activity, potentially contributing to long-run growth in Europe.