Pamuk, S. (2007) The Great European Divergence

Pamuk, Şevket (2007) “The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300-1600”, European Review of Economic History, 11/3, 289-317.



Recent historiography has dramatically changed the way the impact of the Black Death on the European economy was perceived. It came to be seen as a ‘creative destruction’ process, a source of “long-term changes that paved the way for the emergence of modern Europe” (p.290). In their research for the origins of the Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the West, historians have also pointed out the significance of the differences in real wages between Northwestern Europe and the Mediterranean world (p.291). Yet, the wages gap between these two regions originated even before the 1600s (p.292).

Consequences of the plague

The post-plague demographic recovery lasted until the 16th century, although with significant regional variations (see table). The economic consequences of the crisis were as dramatic and long-lasting. Total output did not fall as sharply as the population and thus output per capita increased significantly after 1350.


Factor prices and sectoral terms of trade were in turmoil. Real wages doubled in most countries (see graph). Pattern of demand evolved towards goods with higher income elasticity. The Middle East (Byzance, Ottoman territories, Egypt) followed the same trend.


After the epidemic outbreak, price rose (“consistent with the decline in overall economic activity while the money stock remained little changed”). But the flow of bullion out of Europe to acquire Eastern luxuries gradually triggered a long-term decrease that lasted until the 1500s (p.295).

Wage gap between North and South after 1450

After a sudden rise in the 1350-1450 period, real wages slowly began to decrease as population grew (p.298). A similar trend can be observed in the Middle East, symptomatically, in Byzance, the price of slaves doubled over the 14th century. The crisis of the last 100 years of the Byzantine Empire disturbed the general trend (high prices, low real wages), but the region went back into the general trend in the 16th century as the Ottoman conquest brought back stability (p.301).


Until 1450, the real wage levels were roughly similar over Europe but by 1600 a wage gap between North and South was easily identifiable (p.302). “The increase in real wages until 1450 in the northwestern cities and the decline after 1450 was slower in relation to the leading cities in the south”.

“The skill premium began to decline under the conditions of sever labour shortages. (…) In the 16th century, however, the skill premium in Italy went back up along with the recovery of the population, but it stayed at its lower levels in northwestern Europe” (p.303).

So if real wage evidence are used as a proxy for GDP and development, it can be said that the divergence between North and South originated in the post-1450 era during the recovery from the Black death. The insights offered by urbanization rates (indicator for productivity in the agricultural sector) point to the same key period (see table, p.305).


Sources of divergence

The Black Death has had a crucial role in the rise of the European Marriage Pattern, i.e. a shift from higher mortality or ‘positive checks’ to lower mortality or ‘preventive checks’ that allowed part of Europe to escape the Malthusian trap (p.306). It seems that Northwestern Europe may have more benefited from this change than the South. Importantly, these evolution also point to differences in institutions and certainly a greater institutional flexibility in the NW (p.308).

Following Brenner, Pamuk also point out that the agrarian strife that followed the Black Death led to the end of the manorial economy in the West but also to the second serfdom in Eastern Europe. An important source of divergence (p.309).

The betterment of the journeymen position due to lack of labour, forced the urban guilds to evolve toward a greater flexibility: more open apprenticeship and labour-saving innovation (such as the printing press). These change ought to have affected NW industries more than those of the South since at that time the Dutch and English productions started to outstrip the Mediterranean ones (p.310). This Northern specificity favoured their evolution toward capital-intensive modes of production (p.311).


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One Response to Pamuk, S. (2007) The Great European Divergence

  1. Dave Parker says:

    The wage series suggests to me that the divergence originated in the century before rather than after 1450: the urbanisation series similarly shows most divergence in the 14th and 17th centuries (even correcting for what looks like an error in the last column), with little relative change in the 15th-16th. Pamuk’s certainly right to look for its rise in these centuries rather than the era of industrialisation: the question now is, how much did its origins predate even the 14th-century crisis?

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