Click here for audio of Episode 1419.
Today, population reduction by disaster. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
How many times have you heard
someone talk about the good effects of natural
disaster on human overpopulation? Well, it happened
once. The population of Europe had roughly doubled
in the four hundred years leading up to the year AD
1300. An agricultural revolution, coupled with
general warming, fed a huge population expansion.
Then famine entered overpopulated Europe. Between
1315 and 1317 torrential rains destroyed crops. As
hunger and death stalked the land, people were
driven to cannibalism. They even opened graves to
claim the newly dead for food.
It's an old story. Good times increase population
until it has little capacity to withstand bad
times. But this time famine was only the beginning.
In AD 1347 Tatars attacked a group of European
merchants in a town in the Crimea. The attacking
Tatars were suffering from an epidemic. Too sick to
press their siege, they used their trebuchets to
hurl their own dead over the city walls.
That primitive germ warfare was devastatingly
successful. The merchants went back to Genoa with a
disease called yersinia pestis. Rats
followed them off their ship carrying fleas. The
fleas in turn carried the plague that we call
The Black Death into Italy.
Plague deaths were uneven, but staggering. Cities
like Zürich and Siena lost two-thirds of their
people. Forty percent of Europe's population died
in a few years' time. Countless villages vanished
from maps and from history. Aerial reconnaissance
makes it easy to see where medieval villages once
were. Over two thousand such ghost villages have
been spotted in England -- small compared with
Germany, where some 40,000 villages disappeared
So historian Jean Gimpel asks what lay in the wake
of all this death. Wages skyrocketed, and that in
turn led to a new egalitarianism. England's
Peasant's Revolt in the 1380s was only one of many
such uprisings throughout Europe, all triggered in
part by people who saw new value in their labor. In
the short term, lives of the living were improved
by the material goods of the dead. But in the long
term such massive disruption has to be costly. Real
income soon fell below pre-famine and pre-Plague
Worst of all was the long-term social dislocation.
If there was a Dark Age in medieval Europe, it
might well've been that century after the Plague.
The Hundred Years War began ten years before
the Plague, and it lasted all the way up to
Gutenberg. Whole generations lived lives surrounded
not only by one dirty little war after another, but
by economic upheaval as well. People like to
suggest that disaster is nature's way of improving
our lives by controlling population. But a high
price attaches to human life. When death occurs on
that unprecedented scale, it's small surprise to
find survivors spending centuries sorting out the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine; The Industrial
Revolution of the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin
Huppert, G., After the Black Death: A Social
History of Early Modern Europe. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1986
Gottfried, R. S., The Black Death: Natural and
Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York:
The Free Press, 1983.
McNeill, W. H., Plagues and Peoples. New
York: Anchor Book, 1976.
For more on The Black Death, see Episodes 123 and 1037.
from Vesalius, De Humani
Corporis Fabrica, 1543
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.