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Of meetings and plagues

I am in my kitchen, reporting on one of my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings. It is still in full swing. Most of the London events you read about on Samizdata are booze-ups at Perry’s, and at my meetings, there is also booze. From 9.30 pm until around midnight the drink flows and the conversation bubbles merrily, and I can hear it bubbling now. But there is also, always, an agenda. Starting at 8 pm, and proceeding until 9.30 pm, there is a speaker lead discussion.

I have been hosting these things since the late 1980s, and there a moment, a few years back, when I was finding them something of a drag to organise. Only the enormous inconvenience that would necessarily have continued, every last Friday of the month, even if I had stopped holding these meetings, in the form of regulars knocking on my door and demanding entry to a non-existent event and then having to be diverted (which might not be much fun) or told to go away (which might not be wise or kind), persuaded me to persist with these events. But then along came email, to the point where even I had it, and now they pretty much run themselves. I fix a speaker, email everyone on the list on about the Tuesday telling them of exactly who will say approximately what on the Friday, and of any other future meetings that have already been fixed. (Speakers for July and November are now settled, but nothing else is certain as yet, other than that someone will speak.)


Tonight, Sean Gabb spoke about “Demography and History”. He is the second from the right in the picture, with our own David Carr lending an ear in the foreground. The guy in the corner is Bruce, a real photographer, who would have done a far better picture, but with him as with me, you get what you pay for, photographically speaking.

When Sean speaks about current affairs, he is always interesting, but so are most of us. We all have worthwhile opinions about what is happening now. But when it comes to speaking about the whys and wherefores of the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in the Sixth Century or for that matter about the history of Eastern Europe in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, Sean is, in the London libertarian scene, in a class of his own. Not being burdened with false modesty, Sean was recording his talk, on his laptop computer, and I understand that it will be available on the Internet. He had to leave promptly at 9.30 pm to catch his train down to the South Coast where he now lives, so I can not be sure of the details of this, but I will supply a link to his talk as soon as I can, and maybe some more comment on it. The most interesting thing I learned this evening was the existence of an entire class of historical event such as I had never previous known existed. I refer to the plague induced toppling of a culturally distinct poltical elite. The Eastern Roman empire was presided over by a Greek speaking elite. Every city and town of the Empire was run by this tiny handful of Greek speakers. But the plagues of the 540s and onwards destroyed the influence of these elites. Whereas they had previously sustained themselves by recruiting a constant flow of new recruits from among the ranks of the upwardly mobile barbarians, the plague put a stop to that. Suddenly, there were no Greek teachers to train up these new recruits. The elites were both halved in size, and unable to replenish their ranks. Thus the Greek Empire disintegrated. I think I have that about right. (By the way, many moons ago I posted here a rather fanciful speculation about what caused these plagues.)

I feel no great shame at not knowing this stuff about the Eastern Roman Empire, but just before Sean had to leave to catch his train, I had the extreme good fortune to ask about another famous plague, namely the Black Death, the great mid-fourteenth-century plague that killed about a third of the population of Europe, including about a third of the population of England. And it turned out that something rather similar happened here. The “Empire” didn’t collapse, exactly, but the English elite, as a result of the Black Death, abruptly ceased to speak French, and switched to English. The same cultural conveyor belt that had suddenly stopped working throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, did the same in England. Again, I think I have that about right, and what I want to say here is: (a) I never knew that, and (b) how extremely interesting. I have read quite a lot about the economic, and hence political, impact of the Black Death on England, in terms of the relative power of the elites and the masses. But I never knew that about the elite talking French, and then suddenly stopping.

As he said himself, Sean did not say much that was distinctively libertarian, distinctively pro-liberty. He concentrated on how an understanding of population trends illuminates our understanding of history. But on the other hand, nor did he say anything un-libertarian. I was a little nervous that the title, including as it did the word “Demography”, might entice here all manner of political creepy-crawlies, but I only spotted one, and he was not actually that bad, although that may have been because he was so heavily outnumbered.

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6 comments to Of meetings and plagues

  • That was quick! Thanks for another interesting and enlightening evening.

  • Sounds really good and it’s a shame I missed it. I will have to listen to the internet version.

  • I really need to organise something like this for myself in Adelaide. There’s not a lot going on here, and it won’t organise until I do it.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Sounds very interesting. Ancient demography is extremely difficult to handle; figures are usually completely unbelievable. Modern DNA studies suggest that invasions made less difference than was thought &c.

    Before a genuine Byzantinologist makes an intervention, may a mere Byzantine buff remark that, important though the plague of 540 (or when) may have been, Syria and Egypt remained part of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire for another 100 years, when the Arab invasions detached them, just after they’d been liberated from the Persians. As has been said often enough, no one, but no one expected the Arab expansion – now there’s a demographic episode to be explained – but it is also conceded that the provinces involved were “disaffected” and submitted easily to the Arabs. This is put down to their being Monophysite as opposed to Orthodox Christians (the difference would take too long to explain, but isn’t all that great). It may well be that linguistically Greek was losing out and that the religious differences were merely symptoms. But of course all the theology was argued about in Greek (at least what’s survived has) and John of Damascus (died 749), e.g., still wrote in Greek. On the other hand, the demotic local language, Syriac, must have been, as a Semitic language, sufficiently like Arabic to be replaced by it.

    One used to be able to say that every schoolboy knows that the Eastern Empire survived the Arab onslaught and became the bulwark of Christendom. It was the Turks (a different lot of Muslims) that gave them a bad knock in 1071, and when they called for Western help, the Crusades didn’t do them a lot of good.

  • Findlay

    Of course. The Greek speaking elite of the Eastern Roman Empire only “disintegrated” (the inverted commas because it happened more slowly than that word implied) in some parts of the Empire, not all of it. Sorry for saying otherwise.

    The confusion was of course all mine, and none of it Gabb’s.

    Nevertheless the fascinating point about the severe impact of plague upon small, linguistically distinct elites stands.

  • For even more surprises regarding the influence of disease on history, try “Rats, Lice and History” by Hans Zinsser. A real eye-opener.