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29 Mar 2017

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What factors make religious and ethnic minorities vulnerable to violence and persecution? New research by Remi Jedwab, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference, answers this question by studying Jewish communities during the Black Death. 

The Black Death was the greatest demographic shock in European history: approximately 40% of the population died between 1347 and 1352. As such, it had broad-ranging social effects. In particular, historians and economists point to the Black Death as a direct cause of unprecedented scapegoating and persecution of Jewish communities. 

The new study uses data on Black Death mortality rates and Jewish persecution for 124 cities to show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher the mortality rate was in a city, the less likely was a Jewish community to be persecuted. Furthermore, this mortality effect was less prevalent in cities with a history of anti-semitism and stronger in places where Jews played an important economic role as moneylenders. 

Understanding the causes of the Black Death persecutions is important in its own right. These pogroms were among the largest in European history and recent research has shown that they left a legacy of anti-semitism that was associated with twentieth century violence against Jews, support for Nazism, deportations and modern indicators of anti-semitism. 

Studying this episode of anti-semitic violence is also important because of the light it sheds on other episodes of inter-ethnic violence both in the past and today. As numerous studies have documented, minority groups remain targets of violence across many parts of the world. 

The Black Death provides an ideal context to study the interaction between economic and other explanations for inter-ethnic violence. In part, this is because it can be shown that city-level mortality rates were largely random. 

For example, the two Spanish cities of Salvatierra and Pamplona are only about fifty kilometres apart. Nonetheless, the former suffered a mortality rate of 90% during the Black Death, whereas in Pamplona the rate was ‘only’ 50%. The fact that city-level mortality was random means that the Black Death can be used as a sort of natural experiment to test what the effect of mortality was on the probability a Jewish community was persecuted. 

Two mechanisms have been proposed as explanations for why religious minorities might be vulnerable to persecution: 

  • Scapegoating: according to this theory, members of a religious majority experiencing negative shocks may settle on a specific target to blame for their problems. 
  • Inter-ethnic economic complementarities: this thesis argues that patterns of economic complementarity and substitutability determine the ability of two different religious communities to co-exist. When the economic activities of the two groups complement each other (for example, farmers and traders), negative shocks may lead the religious majority to protect the minority because of its economic value. 

The new research finds evidence for the presence of both mechanisms. The Black Death shock provided the initial impetus for anti-semitic violence, but it was patterns of economic complementarity that explain local variation in persecutions. 

Consistent with the scapegoating mechanism, at the aggregate level, the Black Death lowered the threshold for anti-semitic violence and was accompanied by widespread pogroms – 50% of the cities in the sample either massacred or expelled Jewish communities. 

At the city-level, however, the researchers find a different pattern. For relatively low mortality rates (under 20%), persecution was, indeed, more likely as the rate increased. But at higher mortality rates, every 10% increase in mortality led to about a 10% decrease in persecution probability. 

This study shows that in cities where Jews were more important as moneylenders, the negative relationship between mortality and persecutions was even more pronounced. 


Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death
Remi Jedwab (George Washington University), Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama (George Mason University) 

Noel D. Johnson
Associate Professor
Economics Dept.
George Mason University

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