Oxford Centre for Global History Inaugural 'Anthony Gwilliam' Annual Lecture

Oxford Centre for Global History Inaugural Anthony Gwilliam Annual Lecture

Friday 14 October 2022 - H B Allen Centre, Keble College, Banbury Road, Oxford
Following the lecture, there will be a drinks reception in the Robin Geffen Cafeteria
Professor James Belich
Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Why Europe? Y. Pestis. The Black Death and the Rise of Europe


In 1346, Europe and its neighbours were beset by a terrible plague, whose pathogen was Yersina Pestis. It halved populations, and repeat strikes prevented recovery for centuries. It came to be called 'The Black Death' and this lecture argues that it triggered Western Europe's global expansion.

The lecture offers a new two-word answer to an old two-word question: Why Europe? Y. Pestis. The plague not only halved populations, but also doubled the per capita endowment of everything. For the first time, many Europeans had disposable incomes. Demand for silks, sugar, spices, furs, slaves and gold all grew. Soon after the Black Death, Europeans began reaching out beyond their own continent to meet these demands. To these motives for expansion, plague added the means. Labour scarcity drove more use of water-power, wind-power and gunpowder. Many technologies - water-powered blast furnaces, heavily-gunned galleons, musketry, eye-glasses - were 'pressure-cooked' into existence or florescence by plague, as was a new social formation, “crew culture”, which provided the manpower.

If plague had this effect in Europe, why didn’t the Middle East expand too - it also suffered from the Black Death? This lecture’s answer is that it did: Ottoman and Safavid empires also flourished after plague. Morocco, Oman, and the Mughals established colonial empires, at a distance from their homelands like those of Europe. Early modern “European” expansion was actually West Eurasian.

Brief biography

James Belich completed his doctorate at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1982, while on a Rhodes Scholarship, before working as a historian and university lecturer in New Zealand. He was appointed to a personal chair at the University of Auckland in 1996 and then to the Inaugural Keith Sinclair Chair in History in 2002. He became Research Professor of History at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, in 2008, and Beit Professor of Commonwealth and Imperial History at Oxford in 2011. He is a co-founder and former director of the Oxford Centre for Global History.

He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006 for services to history, and his books have won six awards. The books include a two-volume history of New Zealand, Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged (1996 and 2001), and a comparative study of settler societies, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-world, 1783 -1939 (2009).  His first book, The New Zealand Wars (1986), which began life as an Oxford doctoral thesis, was later made into a top-rating television documentary series.  His latest book, The World the Plague Made. The Black Death and the Rise of Europe is to be published by Princeton University Press in July 2022.

If you have any questions regarding the event please contact susan.leedham@history.ox.ac.uk


Lecture notes