Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death

March 2017

by Remi Jedwab (George Washington University), Mark Koyama (George Mason University) & Noel Johnson (George Mason University)

IIEP Working Paper 2017-4

The authors of this paper examine the Black Death persecutions committed against the Jewish people to demonstrate the factors that determine when a minority group will face persecution. A theoretical framework is developed that predicts that there is an increased probability that minorities are scapegoated and persecuted when negative shocks occur. However, if the shocks become more severe, the probability of persecution may decrease when economic complementarities exist between the majority and minority groups. To accomplish this, the authors gathered data on a city-level on Black Death mortality and Jewish persecution. An aggregate level showed that scapegoating led to an increase in the baseline probability of persecution. On the city-level, high plague mortality rates did not align with increased persecutions. Persecutions were found to be more likely in cities with a history of antisemitism and less likely in locations where Jews were featured in important economic roles.

The Black Death had wide-ranging social effects, and historians and economists often look to the Black Death as a direct cause of scapegoating and persecution of Jewish communities. The authors contradict this view using city-level Black Death mortality rates and Jewish persecution, demonstrating that the higher the mortality in a city, the less likely persecution would occur. This was accentuated in cities where Jews played important economic roles. They show that, while the Black Death shock was the initial impetus for antisemitic persecution in Europe, it was mainly patterns of differences in economic standing between minority and majority groups that explain local variation in persecution.

Their work contributes to several literatures, such as recent work on the economics of mass killings. They also add to literature on the relationship between shocks and the persecution of minorities, which emphasizes the role played by economic complementarities between groups, and literature on antisemitism. Their study provides a unique perspective, as well, as the Black Death provides a very well suited setting to examine the causes of mass killings.

In their framework, negative shocks can increase both the incentive to persecute a minority and to raise that minority’s economic value. The authors conclude that the decision to persecute the minority is dependent upon how the intensity of the shock interacts with the benefit one gains from persecution and the economic benefits gained from the presence of the minority. While their research suggested there are underlying biases against minorities, it also demonstrated that complementary economic activities between minority groups and majority groups could reduce inter-group aggression.

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