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The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study.

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. By Stuart J. Borsch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. xii plus 195 pp. $50.00).

Borsch's book probably contains a few nuggets of gold (as opposed to fool's gold). Yet the fact remains that most of the guiding hypothesis and conclusions found in it serve to confirm the correctness of the assumption mistakenly attributed to Edward Said (in his Orientalism: 1978, misreading what Said wrote on page 204) to the effect that present-day Westerners are incapable of writing objectively about the history of Non-western lands. (In that paragraph pinpointed by Robert Irwin in The Lust for Knowing, London, Allen Lane, 2006, pp 290, 372, Said in fact clearly stated that he was writing about the situation in "the nineteenth century" pp. 203-4). Yet once brought into being, the disease virus ("Orientalism") continued to persist as one of the several forms of discourse found in academic places in the West.

Writing (as an "Orientalist") in the early years of the twenty-first century, Borsch contrasts what he takes to be the entirely forward-looking and enlightened responses of the English landholding classes (no mention of the Church as holder of 20-25% of the land of England) to the demographic hemorrhages caused by the bubonic plague in and after 1348 / 49 with (2) the initiative-stifling responses made by the land-holders of Egypt, the Mamluk ruling elite. Cleaving tight to the outmoded assumptions of American school-boy history that "England" had always been in the forefront of progress until it was overtaken by the USA after World War I, Borch tells us that "England's economy epitomized the most positive economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the wake of the plagues." [p 16]

Borsch then trots out a listing of these "positive" elements. "The scarcity of labor in England destroyed the remnants of the manorial system which was replaced by tenant farming. Wages rose, rents and grain prices dropped ... and the economy fully recovered by the year 1500."[p. 16] In all this the "salient point" was the nature of the landholding systems. Hammering this point home, he states "the different structures of the landholding systems [found in England, as opposed to that in Egypt] were the key element that determined the final outcome in the two countries." [p.20]

Unfortunately for Borsch's reputation as a "Comparative historian" all of the old truisms about England's wondrous recovery from the Black Death of 1348-51 and from later visitations of bubonic plague have been shown to be partially or totally false. By West European standards, England in 1500 was a backwater. This was still the case in 1600 and 1650. Indeed if one were to assign a single book to students to tell them how it came to pass that Britain had become the economic super-power of the 19th century one would ignore Borsch entirely and would point them in the direction of Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China and the Making of the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

What then does Borsch contribute to the furtherance of the study of plague and post-plague history of Egypt? He tells us that he learned colloquial Arabic and picked up the ability to read medieval documents found in Cairene archives. These in themselves are tremendous achievements, evidence of a huge investment in terms of time and of money spent on basic necessities while acquiring these skills. All very commendable. And in particular, Borsch found a wealth of here-to-fore unpublished information in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, in the waqt deeds, created on behalf of the landholding class.[pp 10-11].

But, and this is where the problem lies, once Borsch had acquired all this information, he had to sort out how to present it to the wider world. Given that the information standing on its own was, it seems, of antiquarian value only, he had to establish a wider context into which it could be placed. The end result was his comparative study of the (allegedly) initiative-stifling landholding class of Egypt, the Mamluks, contrasted with (allegedly) enlightened landholding classes of England. By giving pride of place to the (alleged) actions of one category of persons--landholders--Borsch underplayed or ignored the role of other categories of persons. Thus in the splendid Non-Orientalist book, Before European Hegemony (Oxford U.P. 1989) (which Borch only cites in order knock it) Janet Abu-Lugard points out that the events that finally and fatally weakened Mamluk Egypt's ability to recover from the hemorrhage of population occasioned by the Black Death and successive visitations of bubonic plague stemmed from the collapse of Egypt's overseas trading links--Venice, Egypt, India, China--occasioned by the Portuguese establishment of direct links by way of the ocean-sea around South Africa to India.

In short, bits and pieces of Borsch's completed research--his efforts to establish the value of various units of currency for example--might form the subject matter of articles in specialist journals. But as a book?

Sheldon Watts

American University in Cairo
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Author:Watts, Sheldon
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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