The impact of early disease outbreaks has traditionally been assumed to be mostly random. The incidence of COVID-19 in northern Italy could be attributed to sheer bad luck (Sanfelici 2020), as it was the main entry point for the pandemic into Europe. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also attributed the bad first wave of COVID-19 in New York to population density (Badger 2020).
But are urban variations in the short-term incidence of pandemics completely random? Are differences in local institutional capacity important in determining disparities in the incidence and duration of pandemics?
Our new research (Wang and RodrÃguez-Pose 2021) examines variations in the incidence and duration of the initial black plague epidemic (1347-1352) at the urban level in Europe.
The Black Death is the deadliest pandemic on record. It wiped out between one and two thirds of the European population in the 14th century (Ziegler 2013). It also represented a turning point in European history. The recovery from the Black Death has been linked to a significant reduction in wealth inequalities (Alfani 2020) and the emergence of a high-income Malthusian equilibrium which resulted in a relatively rapid economic recovery (Clark 2008).
However, the Black Death left a different mark in different parts of Europe. According to Christakos et al. (2005), the average death rate in European cities was around 42.57%, with an average duration of a plague wave of 6.3 months. Some cities, such as Leuven (in Belgium), Arras and Douai (both in France), have reported death rates below 10%. In contrast, death rates in Yarmouth (England), Scicli (Sicily) and Ciudad Real (Spain) exceeded 70% of the city’s population.
What factors explain such large variations in mortality? One potential explanation lies in the variations in urban autonomy in medieval times. A greater degree of autonomy could have enabled cities to react quickly and quickly introduce quarantines and lockdowns soon after the plague arrived (Alfani and Murphy 2017, Geltner 2020). Non-self-governing cities, on the other hand, have not had the luxury of adopting their independent measures. They had to wait for decisions taken by distant and often distant kings, for example in Paris, London, Toledo, Lisbon or Zaragoza or by the Pope in Rome (Hohenberg and Lees 1995).
It’s not always the case that autonomous cities made quick and responsive decisions against a pandemic that everyone was unfamiliar with, but they at least showed more initiative compared to cities without or with a degree much lower autonomy.
Mapping the Black Death and urban autonomy in medieval times
Figure 1 identifies the hot spots of the first wave of the Black Death. The highest incidence was observed in eastern Sicily, central Italy, southern France, Catalonia and southern England. The incidence was considerably lower in southern Germany, Belgium and most of central and northern France.
Figure 1 Black plague death rate
In terms of duration, the Black Death lasted longer in Belgium, northern France, central Germany, Andalusia, and isolated cities like Toledo, Barcelona and Naples (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Duration of the black plague
When comparing Figures 1 and 2, there does not appear to be a correlation between reported death rates in cities and the duration of the plague. Naples, for example, suffered from the plague for a long time, but its death rate was low. In the Sicilian cities of Scicli and Syracuse, the pandemic was shorter but its impact was much more devastating.
Figure 3 maps the location of autonomous cities in the 14th century. Cities are classified as autonomous if, at the time of the first plague wave, they had institutions of self-governance and the members of these institutions were chosen by the inhabitants of the city, and not by outside rulers – that is, if there was a local urban participatory organization that made decisions about local urban affairs. Evidence of the presence of consuls, official documents such as deeds signed by city representatives, and the presence of imperial charters to grant autonomy to cities were used as criteria for considering a city as self-governing.
figure 3 The location of autonomous and non-autonomous cities
Urban autonomy was more often the norm in the small city-states of central Italy or Germany than in the larger and more consolidated kingdoms, such as Aragon, Castile, England or France. There were, however, exceptions such as cities in southern and northeastern France or most cities in Portugal.
Local institutions matter for death rates, but not for duration
To what extent has the ability of autonomous cities to respond earlier to the Black Death limited its impact? Our analysis reveals that city autonomy is strongly correlated with lower Black Death mortality, even when other factors that affected variations in mortality in medieval times – including a rich range of conditions geographic, social and political – are taken into account.
In autonomous cities, the death rate from the Black Death was on average 9.29% lower than in cities without a significant degree of autonomy. During the Black Death, the adoption of faster and more effective measures against the plague somewhat reduced the horrific death toll from the pandemic, especially in cities ruled by distant princes, kings and emperors.
City autonomy was, moreover, a much more powerful tool in mitigating the effects of the plague than almost any other geographic and political feature of cities considered. Being a capital, housing a parliament, or having a bishop or archbishop in the early 14th century did not reduce the incidence of the plague. In other words, among various political factors at the time, only the autonomy of the city and the powers it granted to local citizens offered some protection against the deadliest of pandemics.
While city autonomy significantly influenced Black Death death rates, it had less of an impact on the average plague duration in different cities.
Overall, local self-governing institutions played a crucial role in reducing the impact of the Black Death. Faced with the worst pandemic on record, autonomous municipal governments have been more effective in adopting better prevention measures.
Self-government can also help reduce excess mortality in the current COVID-19 pandemic (RodrÃguez-Pose and Burlina 2021). Thus, improving the quality of local institutions was and can still be today an effective mechanism for combating pandemics. When greater local autonomy goes hand in hand with competent and resourceful local institutions that implement adequate policies (Briconne and Meunier 2021), the chances of being able to fight more effectively against current and future pandemics are likely to increase.
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