Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006
How do you keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree? JEM writes:

"The deeper one look into this matter of the death of slavery, the more one sees that the reasons are complex, but nevertheless relate most clearly to matters of social change and economics rather than morality.

"And your readers have certainly presented some interesting new suggestions:

"(1) I don't like to do down my old sparring partner Jerry Pournelle, but horse collars? Well perhaps, but... It sounds good, except that when you stop to look you find they were invented in China about 100 BC without noticeable improvement in the conditions of slaves/serfs there, and had become pretty much universal in Europe by about the 8th century, which is far too soon to have ended slavery.

"What they DID do was make the proper agricultural development of what is now Germany possible, a task beyond Roman agricultural technology quite apart from their legions not being made welcome by the locals, as Publius Quinctilius Varus and the three legions he commanded found out the hard way at the Teutoburgerwaldschlacht (Battle of Teutoburg Forest) in 9 AD. Years later, Caesar Augustus would still call out in his sleep, "Quintili Vare, legiones redde!" ("Quinctilius Varus, bring back my legions!") Sorry; I digress.

"(2) General Sherman and the Royal Navy? They certainly had a lot to do with defeating the Confederacy, but that is not what we are discussing here. The US Civil War was part of the dying process of slavery, not the cause of it being doomed. The war may have speeded the end of slavery in the United States, but it would have happened eventually in any case. It, and Sherman, and the RN, were an effect and not a cause.

"And the story of the cotton mill is exactly in line with what I had said earlier; that in the first instance the industrial revolution may have lead to a temporary rise in the numbers of slaves, but in the end it did the opposite.

"(3) The Little Ice Age? This is more plausible. In fact it's very plausible; indeed I wish I'd thought of it first!

"Just a couple of caveats: I don't think the Little Ice Age came upon the world quite as suddenly as all that, although it did happen at the right time, and quickly. (So much for the contention that climate change today is too fast or too big to be natural; this 14th century climatic event was much faster, a greater change, and 100% natural.) And then, I don't quite see what the self-serving eating propensities of the New World had to do with the demise of Medieval European slavery/serfdom.

"So, on with the Black Death.

"First, a slight time-line adjustment, folks. On deeper investigation, it seems that in western Europe at least, the Black Death and the rise of modern banking and capitalism both came alone at about the same time, during the 14th century. Simultaneously England and France, the two nations worst-affected by the Black Death, (as I understand it: NOT the least, as ARC says) were engaged in the Hundred Years War at a time when the whole overpopulated region was in deep economic depression. What's more, government (to use the term loosely) restrictions on the export of basic foodstuffs like grain in response to the plague added famine to the rest of the depredations visited upon the population. (Here the official response was counter-productive in a manner not unlike the reactions of governments to the Wall Street Crash, which greatly deepened the subsequent Depression.) In the case of England, for example, it's known that at least half -- perhaps up to 60% -- of the population was wiped out by the Black Death alone. And now add in the Little Ice Age....

"All in all, not a fun time to be around. Yet in the end, and out of all this suffering, more hopeful developments emerged.

"The power of the Roman Catholic Church was greatly weakened, leading in the short term to anti-Jewish pogroms and attacks on unfortunates such as lepers accused of causing the plague, but in due course to the Renaissance (partly) and the Reformation.

"The feudal system collapsed. The Peasant's Revolt and similar unrest elsewhere in Europe were symptomatic of these problems, but in the end, at least in England, it was collapsing land prices and the soaring cost of labour that did the system in; it become just too expensive to keep people in serfdom. They could basically just walk away... "How do you keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"

"Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, the Black Death was not so severe, there was no current economic depression, and the powers-that-be increased the heavy hand of suppression upon the serfs. Indeed it took until the late 19th century for serfdom to be abolished in Russia, and many believe this different history had a lot to do with the relative backwardness of the region.

"In China, the Middle East, etc., the reaction seems to have been broadly similar to eastern Europe.

"So I suggest that a unique conjunction of events, especially in north-western Europe, brought about a different reaction to the Black Death from that experience elsewhere. Perhaps we should say the Black Death was the catalyst for changes that were possibly coming anyway for other reasons, as described above? Who knows?

"But whatever the cause, it clearly was nothing to do with an outbreak of moral rectitude. I think the evidence is that the asserted moral basis of the change, and even more of that around the Industrial Revolution are fine examples of non causa pro causa, a common logical fallacy defying the principle of causality. Understandable in these instances from their perspective, but false.

"Yet none of this should be taken to be a disparagement of morality, or moralist, or religion. It's just that they tend to be the followers of historical-moral events, not the leaders -- subject to fashion, like most of humanity*. Nor should it be seen to be in any way a moral defence of slavery. Certainly not; that is indefensible. But until James Watt's inspirational game of golf on Glasgow Green in 1765 it was economically inevitable. There will always be enough people out there who put profit before principle. - JEM."

JEM adds as a footnote:

*There's a wonderful future theme, Natalie : The impact of fashion on religion and morality in history.