Conference 2012

'Catastrophes'

Selwyn College once again played host for the Cambridge History Forum conference on 3rd March. The conference looked at 'Catastrophes' focussing on the Black Death in the fourteenth century and its subsequent long term effects and the 1930s and the effects of the Great Depression.

Professor Mark Bailey, High Master of St. Paul's School, began the conference with 'The Black Death Environmental Disaster or Economic Miracle?' Professor Bailey started his lecture by acknowledging that although the Black Death was "the greatest recorded disaster in human history", there has been a great deal more recent research which has examined the long term impact which demonstrates considerable economic benefits. The Black Death reached England in 1348, where it indiscriminately killed approximately 45% of the population between the summer of 1348 and the summer of 1349. Professor Bailey challenged popular notions of plague and referred to DNA breakthroughs on teeth from late fourteenth century mass graves which took place in 2010-2011 and suggest an unknown variant of yersinia pestis as the cause. Although this first outbreak finished in 1349, it was followed by several other plagues over the next 150 years 14 national plagues being recorded in the fifteenth century which, he argued, were largely a result of exceptional climatic instability during the period. There was a massive economic, social and cultural impact with national production levels falling by 30% between 1350 and 1450, the value of arable land collapsing and villages being abandoned. Professor Bailey pointed out that villages being wiped out by plague were, in fact, rare and it was generally the impact of the subsequent recession that led the survivors to move elsewhere. There was a great deal of social unrest, punitive legislation was passed and people became obsessed by death as the Black Death had reinforced how indiscriminate death could be. Professor Bailey then went on to advance the argument that the period could be seen as an economic miracle in that there was a redistribution of wealth; by the 1370s wages were going up, a new market structure replacing fairs developed and consumerism was born. He further argued that the period led to a "Golden Age of Individualism" which saw the liberation of women and the disappearance of serfdom by 1500 the first step towards Britain becoming the first industrial nation. There was also an increase in the search for religious understanding amongst the population, as well as a growth in demand for information. Professor Bailey concluded by saying that it was an age of contrasts and contradictions where both disaster and opportunities could be seen. One student commented that the lecture had "opened a new perspective onto the issues and looked at the global impact" and another student felt they had learnt far more about the Black Death than they previously knew and it left them wanting to find out more.

 The second lecture on 'Lessons from the 1930s Great Depression' was given by Professor Peter Fearon from Leicester University who began by quoting John Maynard Keynes who described the Wall Street Crash and the Depression as "the greatest economic catastrophe of the modern world". Professor Fearon described the state of the international economy in the 1920s as "disguised instability" as most people at the time did not realise the fragile state economies were in after the First World War. Although the Gold Standard did return, it did not secure the stability it had done before 1914. The increased speculation in America then led to the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. Professor Fearon's lecture then focussed not on why the Depression had occurred, but on why it had become so severe throughout the international community. He looked at various countries, but particularly on the effects on Britain, America, France, Germany and Austria and how they dealt with the economic circumstances of the 1930s. Finally, the lecture moved to draw parallels with the current economic situation. It was pointed out that the key indicators in 2007-2008 fell faster than they had done in the early 1930s, but having learned the lessons of history, the current crisis has been dealt with differently. Britain and America have avoided financial meltdown and distressed financial institutions have been fed aggressively. In the Eurozone things have been more difficult: debtor countries have had to deflate and the 1930s demonstrated that this is not easy but, unlike the 1930s where a country could leave the Gold Standard, how does a country leave the Euro today? Professor Fearon concluded by saying that if there had been a coordinated approach in the 1930s, as has been the case in the current recession, the scale of the crisis would have been reduced. One student commented that the lecture had been "an interesting insight into the development of global economic systems" and another said it was "an interesting portrayal of economic events that occurred and comparisons between events past and present."

The conference was once again very interesting and enjoyable. Various groups then went their separate ways for lunch and further discussions about the issues raised by the lectures during the morning.