The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich - review by Jonathan Sumption

Jonathan Sumption

In Sickness and in Wealth

The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe


Princeton University Press 640pp £30

Between the 15th and the 20th centuries, Europeans conquered most of the known world and resettled a large part of it. What they did not conquer they controlled through a mixture of political pressure and financial muscle. Historians used to write about this astonishing expansion of Europe as a great adventure: the achievement of brave men confronting the powers of darkness and barbarism. This kind of history is no longer fashionable in an age of post-imperial guilt. But the phenomenon still needs to be explained and understood in terms that are free of either moral judgement or patriotic posturing.

James Belich is a flamboyant historian whose work is characterised by large and confident generalisations and the trenchant dismissal of opposing views. He has already written about the latter part of the period in Replenishing the Earth (2009), which concentrated on the explosive expansion of the Anglo-American world between the American War of Independence and the Second World War. His explanation was mainly cultural. He posited a ‘collective psychology’ of migration, which sounds more like effect than cause. But his argument was illustrated with an immense and miscellaneous mass of detail culled from current secondary literature, which was fascinating, even if the basic argument did not convince.

Much the same can be said of The World the Plague Made, which is concerned with the earlier period of European expansion, from the late Middle Ages to the dawn of the 19th century. It has all the rhetorical flourishes that we have learned to expect from him, and

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