Deaths from famine, from Chroniques d'Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin (Netherlandish School, 15th century)

He was the author of a classic work of history which threw out false, complacent and downright racist narratives of the New Zealand Wars – and now James Belich is on the world stage, picking up a handy five thousand quid last week for making the shortlist of the most distinguished history prize in English letters.

Belich, formerly on staff at Victoria University and Auckland University, and now Professor of Global and Imperial History at Baliol College, Oxford, won the £5000 for his latest book The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe, published by Princeton University Press. It was shortlisted for the annual Wolfson History Prize. The grand winner, Halik Kochanski, author of Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939–1945, received £50,000.

She was awarded the prize in a ceremony held at Claridge’s in London, attended by key figures from the world of history and academia. Judges of the Wolfson Prize included one of England’s national treasures, historian Mary Beard.

I got hold of Belich and congratulated him on pocketing the loot. “Yes, five grand is good,” he said, “but 50 grand would have been better. Anti-New Zealander conspiracy among the all-UK judges of course.” Of course. Belich has always operated as a wit – he has said very kind things in the past about my Secret Diary series in the Herald – and a provocative humour was close at hand throughout the pages of his 1986 classic The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, later televised in a five-part series in 1998, when he challenged a wider audience with his thesis that the wrong side (British) claimed victory in our 19th Century civil war. His radical reworking of a key event in New Zealand history shocked much of middle NZ to the core. Idiots reduced his argument to “Māori good, Pākehā bad” but the book, and the TV series, laid the foundation for revised thinking.

Naturally he also had fun with his study of the 14th Century Black Death: “I found black humour about the Black Death necessary to keep going.” The bubonic plague killed an estimated 25 million people. It also made life immeasurably better for the survivors. Most studies of the Black Plague itemise the suffering and agony, but Belich takes a wider view. “It seems almost inhumane”, he writes, “to find a silver lining in a cloud as dark as the Black Death.” His book is obsessed with silver linings: the plague sparked a series of innovations, and brought about “a golden age”. He argues that it “gave common folk among the survivors a taste of a materially better life”.

One example was the boost it gave to the book trade, and consequently the trade in ideas. I asked him about publishing’s debt to the plague, and he replied, “You are right that the Black Death lurks in printing’s murky past. Working at the Herald, you have no doubt long suspected this.

“Smaller families had more money to spend on books and education, so the book production process speeded up from about 1370 in a series of steps: production-line manuscripts, wood-block printing, printing from engraved copper plates. Book output increased ten-fold before Gutenberg turned to printing with moveable metal type in the 1450s.”

Peter Frankopan, author of the extremely popular history book The New Silk Roads, gave Belich’s The World the Plague Made a rave review in Prospect: “Ambitious, bold and engrossing …Belich asks profound questions and does so with considerable elan.” He wondered whether Belich drew too long a bow in some of his conclusions but essentially agrees with his central claim that the plague “produced a whole series of gains that were surprising and often positive.”

Belich said, “I doubt Europe would have expanded and developed so much without the Black Death’s terrible pruning. Before it, Europe was overpopulated and undercapitalised in relation to the technologies of the day. After it, the average share of almost everything suddenly doubled – houses to horses, cash to carts, fertile land to prime fishing spots. This led to a 150-year spasm of catch-up with the more advanced economies of China and India. Expansion -friendly developments clearly traceable to plague include big guns, big galleons, handguns, more scribes to manage things, more demand for exotic goods, more ‘disposable males’, more ready to take risks abroad because they might die of plague at home anyway.”

I asked him whether comparisons could be made between the Black Death and the plague in our own lifetimes.

He said, “Covid killed less than 1% of the population (much less in NZ). The Black Death killed around 50%, and kept on pruning the population until about 1500 – please do not suggest this policy to David Seymour.

“So there is no direct comparison. But Plague and Covid did have one important thing in common. They would had stayed at their points of origin, a Christian village in West Kyrgyzstan about 1337 and somewhere in Wuhan in 2019, if these places had not been wired up to wider worlds through trade and travel. So both were a joint-venture between bad luck and globalisation.”

I also wondered whether Covid had inspired his book on the Black Death.

He replied, “People jest about seeing me wandering around Wuhan in late 2019,  gathering bats and pangolins, but in fact my project began long before. It was kicked off by a Marsden Fund grant in 2009, when I was still in NZ. Though their funding was limited, especially for the Humanities, the Marsden people saw that we should contribute to global scholarship, not just draw on it. So a salute to them.”

The World the Plague Made: The Black Death & The Rise of Europe by James Belich (Princeton University Press, $70) is available in selected bookstores

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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1 Comment

  1. No doubt our still growing world of ‘consumer-ists’ is making it hard to control climate change emissions. Changing to lower emission energy sources will help little if high energy impact on the planet itself is not reduced. “Degrowth”.

    50% deaths is mind boggling. Given that this time we can know the influence of our ideological consumer-ist lifestyle on what is killing the planet we should not expect a kindly, morally effective recovery. But that challenge could be the catalyst for an emergence of a more aware, mature human civilization.

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