Economic Impact and Consequences of the Plagues on the Medieval Middle East      

By Şevket Pamuk

* This is a summary of an article co-authored by Şevket Pamuk & Maya Shatzmiller, Plagues, Wages and Economic Change in the Islamic Middle East, 700-1500, 74 The Journal of Economic History 196 (2014).

The medieval and early modern Middle East experienced two long episodes of plague. Both the Justinian Plague that began in the sixth century and the Black Death that began in the fourteenth century lasted for centuries and caused the death of large fractions of the total population. In both episodes, the population recovered slowly in part because the plague kept recurring and also because fertility seems to have remained low. Each of these plagues led to large and long-lasting increases in the purchasing power of wages and higher levels consumption and standards of living for those that survived. Eventually, with partial if not full recovery of the population, both real wages and per capita incomes began to decline from their high levels.

This pattern is reasonably well-known and had been studied in some detail in the case of the Black Death in Europe and to some extent in Egypt. Less well-known until recently is the impact of the Justinian Plague. The wage and price evidence we compiled and analyzed indicates that the Justinian Plague that lasted at least until the middle of the eighth century also had important consequences on wages and per capita incomes, at least in parts of the Middle East.

Our study of wages also sheds light on the possible causes of economic prosperity during the so-called Golden Age of Islam, which lasted from the eighth to the tenth centuries and centered on Iraq. Our knowledge about this episode is limited but it is clear that this was a period of intensive growth, evident in the expansion of irrigation, productivity increases in agriculture, higher rates of urbanization, growth of manufacturing, development of long-distance trade, and a burst of technical innovation as well as cultural achievements. Our calculations indicate that wages of unskilled workers as well as average incomes was significantly above the subsistence minimum during this period. We suggest that the environment of labor shortages, high labor incomes and high per capita wealth in the aftermath of the Justinian Plague might have stimulated agricultural productivity, the urban economy, and long-distance trade by creating demand for income elastic goods, both domestic and imported.

Data, Sources and Our Calculations

Medieval Middle Eastern sources contain abundant price data and to a lesser extent wage data. One source is the Arab chroniclers who provide price observations more frequently, if not mostly, for periods of great abundance or famine, or periods of unusual lows and highs. In contrast, data from two other main categories of primary sources, papyri and the Geniza documents, offer price and wage data for “normal” times as recorded in contemporary contracts and accounts. The Geniza documents yielded many dozens of wage observations for urban unskilled workers from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. For Iraq, we uncovered less than a dozen observations for the early period (c. 750 to 1000) and less than a dozen observations for the later period (c. 1000 to 1258). The volume of evidence on prices is much larger although not large enough to build annual series for all of the medieval era. Our article provides a detailed list of the sources. It also presents the results of our calculations of nominal wages, price levels and the purchasing power of the wages of urban workers in tables and figures.

Economic Impact of the Plagues

Economic historians knowledge of the economic impact of long-lasting plagues is based mostly on the experience of Europe during the Black Death. Our study of the wages and other evidence suggests that the short- and medium-term impact of the two plagues in the Middle East was broadly similar to that of the Black Death in Europe. With the decline in population, total output went down sharply, but less so than population. Thus, output per capita increased after the initial impact of the plague. Real wages rose sharply in the decades following the first occurrence of the plague. Higher per capita wealth, per capita incomes, and higher labor incomes also led to major changes in patterns of demand, relative prices, and output. Prices of agricultural goods declined relative to manufactures, especially manufactures with high labor content and labor cost. Land rents as well as interest rates went down both in absolute terms and relative to wages. Owners of land began to lose while incomes of laborers, peasants and women rose.

With higher per capita wealth and incomes as well as changes in the distribution of income in favor of labor, patterns of demand also began to change from basic goods and necessities towards goods with higher income elasticity or luxuries. The composition of agricultural output thus shifted from cereals towards other crops. There were similar changes in the composition of manufactured goods and services. As population began to increase, so did manufacturing output and the cultivation of new and less productive land. Wages and per capita incomes then began to decline towards their pre-plague levels in both agriculture and the urban economy.[1]

The Black Death in the Middle East

Since more is known about the impact of the Black Death in the Middle East, I will begin with that latter plague. For Egypt, it has been estimated that roughly one-quarter to one-third of the population died and the economy contracted sharply beginning in 1347. The population then continued to decline until the end of the fifteenth century and the total fall may have topped 40 percent due to the recurrences of the plague.[2] However, the incomes of those who survived were often higher, at least initially. Even though direct observations of daily or monthly wages of urban unskilled workers are scarce for the Black Death era, the voluminous writings of the chronicler Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Maqrīzī leave no doubt that after the initial impact of the plague, wages of unskilled as well as skilled workers rose.[3]

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the initial outbreak of the plague and its recurrences had lasting impact on Syria and the Byzantine Empire including Constantinople and Asia Minor or present day Turkey. Reliable estimates on the decline of population during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are lacking for Syria and Asia Minor. Information about the impact of the Black Death on Iraq is very limited. No wage evidence has been uncovered on Iraq for this period. While the Black Death disappeared from western Europe and southern Europe by the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, it continued to recur in the Ottoman Empire including Egypt until the 1840s.

After rising initially, wages of unskilled workers in Cairo began to decline somewhat in the second half of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth century. My earlier studies of the wages of unskilled construction workers showed that in Ottoman Istanbul, wages of unskilled urban construction workers were still quite high at the end of the fifteenth century but began to decline with the increase of population during the sixteenth century. In both cities the post-Black Death peak in wages was not surpassed during the early modern era. At the end of the eighteenth century, wages in both Cairo and Istanbul were no higher than their levels at the end of the fifteenth century.[4] (see Figures 1 and 2)

Just as the longer-term trajectory of wages and economic consequences differed between southern and northwestern Europe,[5] we should not expect the longer-term economic impact of the Black Death in the Middle East to be similar to that in one region or other of Europe. In fact, perhaps the most important insight from studying their history is that the long-term consequences of the plagues depended on the interaction between the disease and societies, economic structures, institutions, struggles between different groups and state policies. Even though states had limited capacity in these earlier eras, what they did still mattered. Stuart Borsch has recently suggested, for example, that because agriculture in Egypt required the regular maintenance of irrigation systems, labor shortages in the aftermath of the Black Death may have led to their disrepair and decline in agricultural productivity and per capita income.[6]

The Justinian Plague in the Middle East

There is a good deal of evidence now regarding the Justinian Plague. Some historians as well as archeologists of Late Antiquity had been skeptical of its impact.[7] Recent archeological work, however, points to abandoned towns and villages and more generally demographic decline in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Iraq beginning in the sixth century.[8]More recently, Stathakopoulos and others have provided more detailed evidence regarding the recurrences of the plague in the Middle East until the eighth century.[9] A long list of the recurrences across the region is available in our article.

Population figures for this period are not very reliable and they should be treated as no more than best guesses. However, the broad picture offered by the existing estimates does point to heavy loss of population due to the plague and slow recovery beginning during or after the eighth century. Treadgold suggests that the Byzantine Empire’s population fell from a high of 26 million in 540 just before the outbreak of the plague, to 17 million in 610 when the Byzantine Empire still included Egypt and Syria as well as Asia Minor and further declined after that date.[10] Laiou and Morrison identify the Justinian Plague as a turning point in the economic history of the Byzantine Empire and estimate that the plague and its recurrences until the eighth century may have reduced the population by as much as 30 percent.[11]

The existing estimates of population for Egypt and Iraq before and after the Justinian plague are also subject to a high degree of uncertainty. These estimates do indicate, however, that the decline of population from the middle of the sixth century until the end of the eighth century was greater in Egypt and in Syria than it was in Iraq.

Our wage and price series allow us to examine the impact of the Justinian Plague for the first time from this perspective not only for the Middle East but for anywhere in the Old World. They show that the purchasing power of the wages of urban unskilled workers in Egypt during the eighth and ninth centuries was much higher than those in Egypt during the Hellenistic and Roman eras as well as those in Egypt during the later centuries.[12] (see Figures 1 and 2)

The evidence we have compiled also indicates that while nominal wages rose sharply, relative prices moved against agricultural products. Both the absolute and relative price of wheat in Egypt was lower during the eighth and ninth centuries than any later period during the medieval era. As a result, the rise in wheat wages was stronger than the rise in the purchasing power of the wages. These low prices of wheat in Egypt were probably also related to the impact of the plague beyond Egypt. In the earlier period, Egypt had been a major exporter of wheat to the rest of the Byzantine Empire. After the population of the Byzantine Empire declined, particularly in Constantinople, due to the Justinian Plague and its recurrences, demand for wheat from Egypt also dropped.[13]

Data for Iraq during the centuries before and after the Justinian Plague are more limited. While we are unable to say anything about the sixth and seventh centuries, the evidence on wages and prices for Baghdad suggests that labor shortages were more intense in Egypt than in Iraq during the eighth and ninth centuries. The purchasing power of wages of unskilled workers in Baghdad was well above subsistence but lower than that in Fustat-Cairo during these two centuries. With population recovery, prices of wheat began to rise faster than nominal wages and other prices in both Egypt and Iraq but the decline in the purchasing power of wages during the following centuries was slower and more modest in Iraq.

The evidence we have analyzed thus points to persistent labor shortages during both plagues in the Middle East. Although the frequent recurrences of the plague are one important reason for the slow recovery of population, it would also be useful to explore whether the environment of labor shortages and high wages changed, for whatever reason, women’s fertility behavior and slowed down population recovery. This is precisely what Musallam observed: in the aftermath of the Black Death, fertility rates in the region remained low. After extensive research in literary, medical, and legal sources, he concluded that birth control was widely practiced in medieval Islamic society.[14] It is possible that longer-term consequences of low levels of fertility in the face of labor shortages extended to other areas and may have played a role in shaping other institutions in the early centuries of Islam.

High Wages and the Golden Age

The Middle East region had one of the most vibrant economies in the world from the eighth until the end of the eleventh century, “the Golden Age of Islam. The prosperity was based, above all, on highly productive agriculture and gains from long-distance trade. These were, in turn, closely related to political stability, greater security, and the expansion of irrigation. There is also a good deal of evidence that division of labor expanded and the fraction of the labor force in occupations requiring specific skills increased significantly during this period. Such episodes of “economic efflorescence” occurred many times if not often in the Old World during the millennia before the Industrial Revolution.[15]

In the article, we explore in greater detail the causal linkages between the high wage environment created by the Justinian Plague and its recurrences and the emergence of the Golden Age and argue that the high wage environment contributed to the rise of the Golden Age. In some respects, this was a process similar to the emergence of new tastes and demand for luxuries in Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death. What follows explores some of the possible causal connections between the plague and aspects of the Golden Age; a link that existing historical literature has not adequately examined.

High levels of wages and per capita wealth contributed to the increases in agricultural productivity in the aftermath of the Justinian Plague through the rise of demand for high income or income elastic goods. During this period, Iraq became the first home in the Middle East to a variety of new plants (food plants such as sorghum, rice, lemon and lime, spinach, watermelon), sugar cane, and industrial plants including Old World cotton, as described in detail by Watson.[16] Evidence from cookery books and more generally historical data about diets also indicate that mutton, lamb, chicken, and dairy products played an important role in the diets of the salaried middle classes, and to a lesser extent of the poor. Since obtaining the same amount of calories from meat and dairy products can be as much as ten times costlier to produce than from grain products, the extent to which meat and dairy products are included in the diets and more generally the contribution of animal husbandry to the economy provides us clues about how far levels of income had risen above the subsistence minimum.[17]

Perhaps the strongest evidence for rising productivity in agriculture in Iraq comes from the urbanization rate which exceeded 20 percent in the eighth century. The dense settlements and high rates of urbanization in southern Iraq described by the Arab geographers of the ninth century were not possible without higher levels of productivity in agriculture and long-distance trade. The high wages and the rise of demand for income elastic goods may have also helped the emergence of new tastes and expanded demand in the urban economy for new products, both domestically produced and imported including more expensive varieties of cloth, household goods, utensils, and others as well as demand for literacy and books. The expansion in demand, in turn, supported the growing specialization within manufacturing industries such as food, textiles, ceramics, ivory, leather, metal, paper, wicker, wood, and others as revealed by a recent compilation of trade names and occupations.[18]

It is also possible that some of the technical adaptations on the long and impressive list of technical adaptations and innovations in agriculture and food production, shipbuilding and navigation, textiles, leather and paper, chemicals, soap making, glass and ceramics, mining and metallurgy, mechanical engineering including the use of water power and others that took place during this period represented responses to the same environment of high wages and labor scarcity.[19]These developments may help explain why the purchasing power of wages declined less in Iraq than in Egypt despite the more rapid and stronger recovery of population in the aftermath of the Justinian Plague and why wages of urban unskilled workers did not go down to the levels of subsistence.

This interaction between the environment of high wages that emerged in the aftermath of the Justinian Plague and the Golden Age in Iraq was not the only possible outcome, however. While the Black Death also led to sharply higher wages in Egypt in the near term, longer-term consequences were very different. In other words, one cannot talk about the same pattern in the aftermath of each and every plague. Conditions of high mortality and high wages interacted differently with different geographic conditions, economic structures, institutions, struggles between different groups, state policies and other existing conditions to produce different outcomes in the long-term.


[1] See David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (1997); Ronald Findlay & Mats Lundahl, Demographic Shocks and the Factor Proportions Model: From the Plague of Justinian to the Black Deathin Eli Heckscher, International Trade, and Economic History 157-98 (R. Findlay et al. eds., 2006); Ronald Findlay & Mats Lundahl Towards a Factor Proportions Approach to Economic History: Population, Precious Metals, and Prices from the Black Death to the Price Revolutionin Bertil Ohlin: A Centennial Celebration 495-528 (R. Findlay, L. Jonung & M. Lundahl eds., 2002); Şevket Pamuk, Urban Real Wages Around the Eastern Mediterranean in Comparative Perspective, 1100-2000, 23 Research in Economic History 213-32 (2005); Nico Voigtlander & Hans-Joachim Voth, Malthusian Dynamism and the Rise of Europe: Make War, Not Love, 99(2) American Economic Review 248-54 (2009).

[2] Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (1977); Michael Dols, The General Mortality of the Black Death in the Mamluk Empirein The Islamic Middle East, 700-1900: Studies in Economic and Social History 397-428 (A. L. Udovitch ed., 1981).

[3] Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England (2005); Dols, The Black Death, supra note 2; Ahmad ibn cAlī al-Maqrīzī, Histoire des sultans mamlouks, de l’Égypte, écrite en arabe par Taki-eddin Ahmed Makrizi (trans. by M. Quatremère 1845); Eliyahu Ashtor, Essai sur l’alimentation des diverses classes sociales dans l’Orient medieval, 23(5) Annales: Economies, Societes, Civilisations 1017-53 (1968).

[4] Süleyman Özmucur and Şevket Pamuk, Real Wages and Standards of Living in the Ottoman Empire, 1489–1914, 62(2) The Journal of Economic History 292-321 (2002).

[5] Pamuk, Urban Real Wagessupra note 1.

[6] Borsch, The Black Death, supra note 3.

[7] Jairus Banaji, Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (2001); Jodi Magness, The Archeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine (2003).

[8] Robert McCormick Adams, Land Behind Baghdad (1965); Richard Alston, Urban Population in Late Roman Egypt and the End of the Ancient World, in Debating Roman Demography 161-204 (Walter Scheidel ed., 2001).

[9] Dionysios Stathakopoulos, Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750, 99-118 (Lester K. Little ed., 2007).

[10] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (1997).

[11] Angeliki Laiou & Cecile Morisson. The Byzantine Economy (2007).

[12] Robert C. Allen, How Prosperous Were the Romans? Evidence from Diodetian’s Price Edict (AD 301), inQuantifying the Roman Economy, Methods, and Problems 327-45 (Alan Bowman & Andrew Wilson (2009); Walter Scheidel, Real Wages in Early Economies: Evidence for Living Standards from 1800 BC to 1300 CE, 53(3) Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 425-62 (2010).

[13] John L. Teall, The Grain Supply of the Byzantine Empire, 13 Dumbarton Oaks Papers 87–139 (1959).

[14] Bassim Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control Before the Nineteenth Century (1983).

[15] Jack Goldstone, Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the ‘Rise of the West’ and the Industrial Revolution, 13(2) Journal of World History 323–89 (2002).

[16] Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World (1983).

[17] Maya Shatzmiller, Economic Performance and Economic Growth in the Early Islamic World, 54(2) Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 132-84 (2011).

[18] Maya Shatzmiller, Labour in the Medieval Islamic World (1994).

[19] Ahmad al-Hassan & Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History (1986); Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, Technological Creativity, and Economic Progress (1990).


Leave a Reply