Friday, September 18, 2009

Pax Mongolica and the Black Death

In this weeks readings, Janet Abu-Lughod makes a very interesting point at the end of the chapter on Mongolia.  She notes that the world system that emerged at the time due to the unification of Central Asia was destroyed both by unrest and fragmentation in that empire as well as the bubonic plague that rapidly cut the world’s population.  The interesting point then made is the connection of the two events.  Abu-Lughod carefully describes the state in which the plague reduces the power of a Mongolian empire that had become less centralized and very diverse.  This reduced power leads to an increase in armed resistance to the authority of the central empire, which leads to disrupted production and tribute flow, which in turn hurts the ability of the empire to suppress such rebellions.  An interesting side effect of the rebellions and infighting within the empire is that they also aided the spread of the bubonic plague.  So not only did both the internal strife and disease contribute to the downfall of the Mongolian Empire, each contributed to the other.  This created what could be called a cycle of destruction that not only ended the reign of the Mongolian Empire and Mongolia’s hegemony over Central Asia (a position that seems even more interesting given Mongolia’s current status in the world), but also the system of trade that had spread throughout the known world.  European traders were still able to complete their dealings to some extent through the seas to the south of Mongolia’s borders, the fragmentation of the Empire removed one key route (due to the lack of safety on the roads thanks to fighting, local warlords, bandits operating in the lack of real authority) but also the Mongolian Empire as a key trading partner for much of the world.  This was due both to its depopulation (experienced by all of the world) and its fragmentation.

            Janet Abu-Lughod also gives the Mongol Empire the credit (or, perhaps more precisely, the blame) for the spread of the bubonic plague.  She cites one theory: that the disease originated in the Burma region, which was isolated from the rest of the world until Mongol invasions.  She says that then the fleas which carried the Plague were picked up by the horses used by Mongol armies (which, almost ironically, are thought of as the reason for Mongol success militarily), finding breeding grounds amongst the rodents of the Central Asian grasslands.  This was then followed by continued contact, through both warfare and trade, of Mongols and the rest of the world.  Additionally, these grasslands were the site of the major northern route used for trade, and were frequented by European and other traders until the middle of the fourteenth century.

            Abu-Lughod mentions fairly early on that each region had, until this period, been fairly isolated, and that each section had its own endemic diseases to which most had some sort of resistance to.  She claims that the sudden connection of these disparate regions would lead to the spread of the diseases of each area to the others, with devastating results.  What I wonder, then, is why it took around one hundred years for a disease like this to ravage whole sections of the world, and why it was the bubonic plague that eventually filled that role.  Was it because the Black Death was unknown to all?  But even in that scenario, why aren’t their more reports of European diseases wreaking havoc throughout Asia and the Middle East much earlier (or the opposite, as well)?  This seems to have happened in specific regions at other points of new contact…

1 comment:

  1. To address your questions raised in your last paragraph, I think it took so long for such a disease to spread across the entire area originally because there just was not much of a world system. Once the areas were more connected, it still took years to traverse the whole region. Factor in how long it would take to reach all of the various ports and outskirts, and that is at least one explanation of why it took so long. One reason the Bubonic Plague was the disease that spread everywhere might be that it was so easily contracted, even by animals. I might be limiting my view, but your final point about this occurring in other regions at new contact brings to mind the settlers' interaction with the Native Americans. To me, that is different because people were still so spread out in Europe and Asia whereas the Native Americans lived much closer together in united tribes.