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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

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The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history, even more so now, when the notion of plague—be it animal or human—has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics t The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history, even more so now, when the notion of plague—be it animal or human—has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics to tell the story: how many people died; how farm output and trade declined. But statistics can’t convey what it was like to sit in Siena or Avignon and hear that a thousand people a day are dying two towns away. Or to have to chose between your own life and your duty to a mortally ill child or spouse. Or to live in a society where the bonds of blood and sentiment and law have lost all meaning, where anyone can murder or rape or plunder anyone else without fear of consequence. In The Great Mortality, author John Kelly lends an air of immediacy and intimacy to his telling of the journey of the plague as it traveled from the steppes of Russia, across Europe, and into England, killing 75 million people—one third of the known population—before it vanished.


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The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history, even more so now, when the notion of plague—be it animal or human—has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics t The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history, even more so now, when the notion of plague—be it animal or human—has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics to tell the story: how many people died; how farm output and trade declined. But statistics can’t convey what it was like to sit in Siena or Avignon and hear that a thousand people a day are dying two towns away. Or to have to chose between your own life and your duty to a mortally ill child or spouse. Or to live in a society where the bonds of blood and sentiment and law have lost all meaning, where anyone can murder or rape or plunder anyone else without fear of consequence. In The Great Mortality, author John Kelly lends an air of immediacy and intimacy to his telling of the journey of the plague as it traveled from the steppes of Russia, across Europe, and into England, killing 75 million people—one third of the known population—before it vanished.

30 review for The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

  1. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    I really, really wanted to like this book. After all, it combined two of my nerdiest obsessions: Late Middle Ages history and Y. pestis, my favorite bacteria. (I'm a microbiology nerd- and besides, everyone should have a favorite bacteria.) Sadly, John Kelly tweaked too many of my pet peeves to make me truly enjoy this book. Allow me to list a few: "... Petrarch dined with the aristocratic Colonna, walked the beaches of Naples with the beautiful Queen Joanna, attended audiences with Clement VI- if I really, really wanted to like this book. After all, it combined two of my nerdiest obsessions: Late Middle Ages history and Y. pestis, my favorite bacteria. (I'm a microbiology nerd- and besides, everyone should have a favorite bacteria.) Sadly, John Kelly tweaked too many of my pet peeves to make me truly enjoy this book. Allow me to list a few: "... Petrarch dined with the aristocratic Colonna, walked the beaches of Naples with the beautiful Queen Joanna, attended audiences with Clement VI- if there had been a fourteenth century "People", the fish-eyed poet would have been on the cover under the headline, "The Fabulous Francesco!" (pg 123) No- just- no. Also- he implied that the Templars should have known to be careful on the day they were nearly wiped out because it was Friday the 13th. Except that Friday the 13th was not mentioned as unlucky until, at the earliest, the 19th century. I can almost forgive the ridiculous and the unintentional anachronisms. Those can be the product of an over eager author and a limited knowledge of popular folklore. But I cannot forgive bad editing. The footnote on pg 153 states, "Life is rarely so heat". That was not my typo- it was his. Surely he meant "Life is rarely so neat", but that seems like something that should be caught during proofreading. The most damning of both the author and the editor, however, is when he tells us that Bristol "literally exploded". No, sir, it did not. Bristol did not literally explode. It may have figuratively exploded, but I count on you, and certainly your editor, to understand the difference between something "literally" happening and something "figuratively" happening. I realize that these may seem like small complaints, but I have high expectations for a nonfiction book. I have a hard time with it because I went to this book to learn, and I have difficulty trusting an author's research and expertise on a topic when he cannot bother to understand the meaning of the word "literally". Over all I was pretty disappointed with this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Anna (Bobs Her Hair)

    If you LOVED Fifty Shades of Grey... this is not the book for you. I'm curious about the psychological, sociological, and economical impact the Black Death had on the affected countries. How did it invade their outlook on life, their culture, and how did it impact religion. If you LOVED Fifty Shades of Grey... this is not the book for you. I'm curious about the psychological, sociological, and economical impact the Black Death had on the affected countries. How did it invade their outlook on life, their culture, and how did it impact religion.

  3. 5 out of 5

    aPriL does feral sometimes

    After finishing ‘The Great Mortality’ by John Kelly, I am not certain what is more horrific - being sick with the Bubonic Plague, or daily life in the 14th century, especially in European cities. Please note I am a modern person of the female gender. This means I like a daily hot shower, household cleansers utilized almost every day, flushable toilets connected to piping which whisk away invisibly whatever is in the bowl, toilet paper and my vacuum (with attachments). I highly appreciate fresh sm After finishing ‘The Great Mortality’ by John Kelly, I am not certain what is more horrific - being sick with the Bubonic Plague, or daily life in the 14th century, especially in European cities. Please note I am a modern person of the female gender. This means I like a daily hot shower, household cleansers utilized almost every day, flushable toilets connected to piping which whisk away invisibly whatever is in the bowl, toilet paper and my vacuum (with attachments). I highly appreciate fresh smelling clothes, people and streets. Household pets get baths when they smell, as do husbands who work out, fix cars or repair broken steps on porches. Everything that is garbage is shoved into black bags, which are tied up and placed outside on the curb once a week to be picked up and taken away. Europeans in the era of the Black Death weren’t having it, nothing doing, if it meant being clean - having to scrub anything free of dirt or filth - even if cleaning, washing, sewers, toilets, and garbage pickup had been available, which it wasn’t. Europeans in the 14th century believed taking two baths in one year was one too many. From the descriptions in this book, based on letters, articles, books, and journals written in the time of the Black Plague, people basically wore garbage and filth, slept in garbage and filth, ate garbage and filth, and worked in garbage and filth. When the Black Death came, people thought breathing deeply of poop fumes was a cure. So, they sought out and stood in their local bathroom trenches and ditches full of poop, instead of ignoring all of the human and animal waste about them as they had previously. Rats loved the increased availability of food near prospering European people during the 14th century. More food meant more rats. So. Fleas love rats. A lot of rats mean a lot more fleas - disease-carrying plague-infected fleas. Ships transported goods and food everywhere, so rats and their fleas got transported everywhere. Suddenly it was 'apocalypse now'. People died in three days if the plague got in their lungs. It took little longer if it went elsewhere in the human body. The plague also killed cats, dogs, goats and sheep. Since rats and fleas are common but plague is not, scientists theorize a superbug or a sudden DNA mutation happened. They suspect the illness may have begun in Russia, or in Mongolia, based on written records and narratives. It spread out along trade routes. But these are educated guesses, likely as they may be. Could it have been an ebola-type thing? Who knows. There have been three major plague-like pandemics. Two are linked because they might have happened by the same disease we generally call the Black Plague (linked by an analysis of DNA from a corpse’s tooth). Maybe. I just finished a book about Arabic science up to the 15 century. Most people in the Middle-East washed a lot, took baths, whenever they could. In fact, most civilizations of earlier times washed and used soap, even though soap was very expensive. Everybody bathed when they could manage it - except the Europeans. Wow. The ancient Greeks and especially the ancient Romans had public baths, accessible to all of their citizens for a few pennies. And sewers! They had sophisticated sewers, public bathrooms and public fountains, flowing with water from mountain streams. Drinkable free water! But what were Europeans thinking, seven hundred years after the ancient but clean Romans passed? They were thinking baths are bad and Poop Cures are cool. They drank wine all day, even the children. Hmmmm. Ok, then. Not that living in poop had anything to do with the main subject of this book. It is simply mentioned in passing the fact that Europeans, especially urban Europeans, lived their lives wearing crusted bits of poop 💩 about their bodies and clothes, with piles of poop surrounding their homes for centuries in the Middle Ages, whether they lived in palaces or hovels. This 'natural-fiber' accidental fashion accessory which also served as a domestic health cure for fad-following hypochondriacs in the Middle Ages fascinates me, even more than watching binge drunks trying to function at ordinary tasks. ‘The Great Mortality’ actually is a very well-researched and detailed academic book about how the Black Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, a close friend of fleas, impacted the daily life of many 14th-century European countries. The author follows the path of the disease in detail across Europe, country by country, month by month. He shows the probable path of the disease across Asia, which appeared to follow trade and troops routes. He describes the general lifestyle of people from Italy to France to England to Germany to Scandinavia, the technology they had, the current politics of the time and the various wars which had been begun shortly before the plague came, the health conditions and what commerce in the cities had been ongoing before and after the Black Plague began to kill. It is estimated the Black Plague killed from a third to half of the population of Europe. Survivors faced a very different world once the disease mysteriously stopped. Economies by necessity were rearranged from lack of workers, food, and young people, who were disproportionately affected. The average age of death went from maybe 50 down to 30 years of age, for example, for a period of time. As you can imagine, people went crazy with fear and grief. What is beyond our imagination (unless, gentle reader, you enjoy zombie apocalypse fiction) is the insane (if expected) things people did to ‘protect’ themselves from becoming sick. Two of the ‘cures’ stood out for me. One was the attempted genocide of Jews. Really? Really. The Jews were blamed in EVERY European country (rumors were passed around that Jews poisoned all of the water wells with plague, but sometimes people just wanted an excuse to rob and loot Jewish property). The other was flagellation associations. Yes. Ok then. A lot of Christian men got together, formed punishment clubs, and went from town to town whipping themselves in obvious ecstasy which increased the longer they flogged themselves. Supposedly, the shredding of their backs, cut to bloody ribbons three times a day (three times!!!!!), would appease God. Why? Many, if not all, believers of Christian faith, believed the Apocalypse had come. It was hoped the self-imposed whipping by volunteers, who were somehow absorbing everyone’s sins upon themselves as they marched along, might make God stop, just stop. In any case, the men were having a lot of fun torturing themselves (religious ecstasy). I suspect, gentle reader, like many history innocents, you thought 'kink clubs' was a thing invented in the 2oth-century, or maybe by 8th-century Shia Muslims (many continue to whip themselves bloody today). Self-flagellation is a well-known common practice of lots of crazy religious people, a quick fact for those not up to speed on religious customs around the world. Actually, the Catholics might have been the first to institutionalize flagellation for self-mortification. The only thing which irked me is the author enjoyed anthropomorphizing the plague as if it were a black bear scrounging around neighborhoods looking for something to eat. I was extremely annoyed. The book is mostly a dry recital of facts, though, using and quoting from many original sources and historical documents, along with scientists’ and historians’ analyses. There is a lot of different non-fiction scholastic material here in one book, making it hard to categorize into one box: history, general science, sociology, industry, cultural studies, medicine, travelogue. There are Notes and Index sections, plus my book had interviews with the author. Nerds will LOVE this book. Women like me might feel a sudden urge to spread some bleach around.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    This book was recommended by a friend who shares my love of world history. Again, he was correct in assessing this little book as good reading.........I was fascinated by the march of the Black Death as a living entity across the continents of Asia, Europe and beyond (I was surprised that it actually reached Greenland). Utilizing the writings of survivors of the plague and "after the fact" observers, Kelly weaves a tale of unremitting horror, death, suffering and economic chaos as Y pestis struc This book was recommended by a friend who shares my love of world history. Again, he was correct in assessing this little book as good reading.........I was fascinated by the march of the Black Death as a living entity across the continents of Asia, Europe and beyond (I was surprised that it actually reached Greenland). Utilizing the writings of survivors of the plague and "after the fact" observers, Kelly weaves a tale of unremitting horror, death, suffering and economic chaos as Y pestis struck down almost half the population that it touched. He follows the Death from the wilds of Mongolia to the fateful journey of the Genoan ship that brought the sickness to the Continent. The story drags and becomes somewhat repetitive in spots as he moves with the plague from city to city. But it is a forgivable sin. The author has done an immense amount of research and in the last chapter he offers the arguments and theories of modern scientists regarding the question..... "was it bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, anthrax, or some unknown illness that died out after its dance of death?" A very interesting and informative telling of one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of mankind.

  5. 5 out of 5

    K.

    I picked up this book because it seemed to coincide so naturally with both my scholastic pursuits and my personal interests. Nevertheless, I expected a textbook-neutral but overall in-depth account of the Black Death that swept across medieval Europe. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Though I was slightly annoyed at Kelly's anthropomorphising of the disease itself and all the awful metaphors that come with it (the disease takes rest in towns, then goes to attack another "feeling refreshed", I picked up this book because it seemed to coincide so naturally with both my scholastic pursuits and my personal interests. Nevertheless, I expected a textbook-neutral but overall in-depth account of the Black Death that swept across medieval Europe. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Though I was slightly annoyed at Kelly's anthropomorphising of the disease itself and all the awful metaphors that come with it (the disease takes rest in towns, then goes to attack another "feeling refreshed", it "follows people", et cetera), this book is a highly accessible narrative non-fiction that I could not really put down until I read it cover to cover. Kelly's comprehensive research shows through with the passion with which he accounts the lives and culture before, during, and after the pandemic passes through "from the China Sea to the sleepy fishing villages of Portugal". Not only do we get a window into people's lives in various countries before the pandemic, but we get vivid pictures of how the spreading sickness impacted lives and the "end of the world" paranoia that came with it, including a section detailing the anti-Semitic fervor that sprung across Europe as a response to a growing desperation felt throughout different countries. Kelly also discusses the science behind the disease, clearly illustrates probable and possible routes, and gives an idea of how its passing affected religion, science, medicine, industry, culture, and people's general outlook after having survived the horrors of the pandemic. Also included was a glimpse into controversial theories about the plague, including contemporary arguments about what really caused the sickness and comparisons to later plague epidemics. Anyone wanting to learn about the Black Death and the world it terrorised over the span of a few years would do well to give this book a try.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Julian Worker

    What better time to read a book on the Black Death than during the Covid Pandemic? Once you've read this book, you'll be glad you didn't live in the period 1347 - 1450 when the population of Europe probably halved as did China's during a similar period. Florence in Italy had 120,000 citizens in 1330 but only 37,000 in 1450. The death rate was not just due to the Black Death there were outbreaks of influenza and smallpox as well as lesser outbreaks of plague. There was also bad weather and a few What better time to read a book on the Black Death than during the Covid Pandemic? Once you've read this book, you'll be glad you didn't live in the period 1347 - 1450 when the population of Europe probably halved as did China's during a similar period. Florence in Italy had 120,000 citizens in 1330 but only 37,000 in 1450. The death rate was not just due to the Black Death there were outbreaks of influenza and smallpox as well as lesser outbreaks of plague. There was also bad weather and a few wars in various parts. So, if you're feeling sorry for yourself staying at home and having to wear a mask when you go out, well read this book and then understand how well off we are. The most interesting aspect of this book, and there are many, is what disease was the Black Death? It was plague but it seems to have varied depending on which part of Europe it was found; it was bubonic plague, becoming pneumonic in places, and septicemic in a few spots. It was spread by fleas but not just by rat fleas. This plague travelled at two miles per day on land suggesting humans spread the disease via human fleas and via coughing. No one reported vast rat die-offs either suggesting more than one carrier or vector. The Russians suspect the Black Death was Marmot Plague, the weapon of choice of Major General Nikolai Urakov, a leader of the USSR's biological weapons program during the Cold War. Marmot plague is probably the deadliest disease on the planet, especially the septicemic version, which is 100% lethal if untreated. If this seems far-fetched, you'll find reports in this book that show people lay down and died in the street and that pigs collapsed straight after eating clothing worn by a plague victim.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    Rating Clarification: 3.5 Stars This book had its ups and downs, but overall it was a very informative book for anyone with more then a passing interest in the black death - and hey, who doesn't like reading about black buboes, vomiting, violent pain, abandonment by family/friends, and a lonely death - especially around the Christmas season? On the plus side, author John Kelly knows his stuff. His book takes the reader to the original ground zero on the Eurasian steppes, and follows the progressio Rating Clarification: 3.5 Stars This book had its ups and downs, but overall it was a very informative book for anyone with more then a passing interest in the black death - and hey, who doesn't like reading about black buboes, vomiting, violent pain, abandonment by family/friends, and a lonely death - especially around the Christmas season? On the plus side, author John Kelly knows his stuff. His book takes the reader to the original ground zero on the Eurasian steppes, and follows the progression of this 14th century plague via the trade routes through the Black Sea, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and through Europe - stopping off in each country with depictions (based on first hand accounts) of the wrath and devastation of Yersinia pestis. On the minus side, there wasn't alot of immediacy in his book, which is sometimes the case with non-fiction. It was at times a dry and acedemic read, rather then a soulful one. But that's more of a personal quibble, and doesn't detract from what was an interesting read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    John

    Having read a couple of historical fiction novels with the Black Death aka the Great Mortality as the book’s backdrop, I picked this book up to read to understand this apocalyptic-like event. Between the years of 1346 and 1353, the Black Death creeped across Eurasia, initially along major trade routes and later inland, killing one-third of the area’s population. I had to slog through the initial chapters that described the plague cause, Yersinia pestis and its vector, the rat flea, which were c Having read a couple of historical fiction novels with the Black Death aka the Great Mortality as the book’s backdrop, I picked this book up to read to understand this apocalyptic-like event. Between the years of 1346 and 1353, the Black Death creeped across Eurasia, initially along major trade routes and later inland, killing one-third of the area’s population. I had to slog through the initial chapters that described the plague cause, Yersinia pestis and its vector, the rat flea, which were carried on rodents such as rats and marmots. However, after this introduction, the author communicated the impact of the pandemic, chapter by chapter as the plague spreads east to west and south to north. Lacking knowledge of today’s epidemiological studies, a panicked mankind behaved in irrational behaviors including the extermination of groups of people thought to be the cause of the disease, including Jews, lepers and gypsies. Others, believing this calamity to be the act of a vengeful God, hoped to atone for their sins through self-flagellation with whips that might have included metal hooks on the ends. When the plague burned itself out, its departure triggered major historical changes, including the Renaissance. Clergy, being one the hardest hit group, resulted in citizens believing that the ordained were not needed as a go-between with God sowing the seeds of the Reformation a couple of centuries later. Additionally, the depopulation of the workforce spurred technological advances in the invention of labor-saving devices. One invention included the Guttenberg printing press. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the impact of the Black Death and its ramification on public health, society, religion, and technological innovation. This event and its subsequent plague years were true history makers.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Susanna - Censored by GoodReads

    Actual rating about 3.5 stars. Very interesting account. Kelly writes with verve, and tells some great stories, but has a couple of tics as a writer which annoyed me, the most prominent being personifying the plague as if it were a living, decision-making animal. Kelly covers how it came to Europe (the chroniclers of the time universally blamed the Genoese), and tracks it scrupulously through Italy, France and England. Scandinavia gets barely a mention, as does Iberia (except for how it treated i Actual rating about 3.5 stars. Very interesting account. Kelly writes with verve, and tells some great stories, but has a couple of tics as a writer which annoyed me, the most prominent being personifying the plague as if it were a living, decision-making animal. Kelly covers how it came to Europe (the chroniclers of the time universally blamed the Genoese), and tracks it scrupulously through Italy, France and England. Scandinavia gets barely a mention, as does Iberia (except for how it treated its Jews; that 15,000 or 20,000 people died in Barcelona is almost a side note), and Germany is covered almost entirely by either what the Germans did beforehand (it's the Jews poisoning our wells, so let's kill as many as we can find before we are affected by this horrible international conspiracy), or as the heartland of the Flagellants during the height of the Black Death. Eastern Europe gets bare mention, as is also the case with Russia. He also discusses what exactly was the cause of the Black Death. It's pretty clear the virus was Yersinia pestis (French scientists have found its DNA in the death pits), but what flea spread it? (The question remains open.) Why did it behave differently from subsequent outbreaks? (That question, too, remains open.)

  10. 5 out of 5

    Cynda

    I so wanted to like this book. I thought at first my brain was not operating right. Then I kept reading anyway. As an amateur historian, I am sorry to say that Kelly has written ambitious book and thst perhaps the task was too ambitious. The book is poorly organized. I wanted the major rivers of Europe included on the map as the major cities which experienced the plague. I wanted more information about the 3 plagues. I know the first two and know of the 3rd in passing. An Appendix would have giv I so wanted to like this book. I thought at first my brain was not operating right. Then I kept reading anyway. As an amateur historian, I am sorry to say that Kelly has written ambitious book and thst perhaps the task was too ambitious. The book is poorly organized. I wanted the major rivers of Europe included on the map as the major cities which experienced the plague. I wanted more information about the 3 plagues. I know the first two and know of the 3rd in passing. An Appendix would have given Kelly a place to explain more about the 3 plagues. I appreciate that Kelly wrote of the English peasant's Revolt where they started earning enough money to improve their standard of living. And work became easier with these new innovations. Kelly does speak of these innovations, yet an Appendix would have allowed him space to explain more. While the English peasants revolted, what about peasants in other places? Without explaining about other places, the reader might assume that peasants all revolted about the same time in relatively the same manner. The French peasants did not revolt up until the late 18th century. It took those peasants that long to get so frustrated, so hungry, so unappreciated that they felt the need to eliminate the royalty, nobility, and the wealthy to a large extent. Revolt for the same reason, at a different time, by a different method. This book is so ambitious and important. I hope that Kelly might review his work, revise, add appendices, and ask a university press to pick it up. So was there anything good worth noting? Oh yes. Kelly made excellent use of primary sources that required effort to find, had excellent background information through an long list of secondary sources of stellar quality. I hope very much that Mr Kelly revises his work.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Leftbanker

    I simply don’t have time right now to adapt this book into a musical, but the dream hasn’t died. I have been fascinated with this topic well before Copvid-19 was cooked up. If you are only going to read one book about The Black Plague this year, I totally recommend this one. Not much of a review, but I just wanted to clear away some clutter on my read-list.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Caidyn (he/him/his)

    This review can also be found on my blog! CW: Jewish pogroms, anti-Semitism, and plague Ah, the plague. The good old plague that decimated Europe’s population. And, apparently, I thought it was a good choice to read this during the most wonderful time of the year! (Actually, this was the book I’d read first thing in the morning with my coffee. I know. I have weird reading habits.) I’ve always had a huge interest in this topic, ever since I was a child. And, yes, I know that I was a very weird child This review can also be found on my blog! CW: Jewish pogroms, anti-Semitism, and plague Ah, the plague. The good old plague that decimated Europe’s population. And, apparently, I thought it was a good choice to read this during the most wonderful time of the year! (Actually, this was the book I’d read first thing in the morning with my coffee. I know. I have weird reading habits.) I’ve always had a huge interest in this topic, ever since I was a child. And, yes, I know that I was a very weird child. You don’t need to remind me. But, I was reminded of it around this time last year. I took a class about Europe in the high middle ages — aka 1000 through, about, 1250. The Black Death is about a hundred years after that point, however my professor decided to spend a day talking about the things that happened after the period. That included the huge famine that struck Europe, the Hundred Years’ War, the beginnings of mercenaries, and, of course, the Black Death. She talked about the cult of remembrance and about the active role that death took in art and many other things. I found it fascinating. Now, a year later, I’ve read this book that gives a general overview of Europe and the plague. Most of the book focuses on Italy, France, England, and Germany. There’s a whole chapter devoted to the treatment of Jews since they were blamed for the plague. Kelly, though, rambles. A lot. He also enjoys drawing comparisons to random little things, like Aldous Huxley or anything else that he feels will tie into the topic. That didn’t always work. It usually pulled me out of the book with a weird face and a laugh since it was just odd. He also has a definite focus for the book of it being more western Europe. He doesn’t go into much detail about the east whatsoever, whether that’s eastern Europe or Asian countries. I wish he had spent the pages drawing comparisons teaching me about the plague in other areas of the world during this time. Still this is a good book. It’s very readable and kept me interested in the topic. It covered a lot of ground I already knew about, but it touched on things I didn’t know and found super interesting. Really, it’s a great book if you want to figure out what subtopic you would like to focus on more.

  13. 4 out of 5

    GoldGato

    Many books have been written about the Black Death, but this one now jumps to the forefront of my little morbid collection. Written with an intriguing historical narrative that explains the state of politics and culture as Death swept into Europe circa 1348, this is an excellent volume to enhance one's curiosity about the 14th-century Plague. "Oimmeddam" is a word from the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, roughly translated to "wandering sickness". The Black Death remains the most successf Many books have been written about the Black Death, but this one now jumps to the forefront of my little morbid collection. Written with an intriguing historical narrative that explains the state of politics and culture as Death swept into Europe circa 1348, this is an excellent volume to enhance one's curiosity about the 14th-century Plague. "Oimmeddam" is a word from the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, roughly translated to "wandering sickness". The Black Death remains the most successful example of "Oimmeddam" in human history. I bring death. My breath causes children to wither and die like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction. No people who looks upon me is ever the same. Starting among the wild Marmot population of the Asian Steppes, the Black Death first moved westward with its rats and fleas, progressing firmly but within the limits of its hosts. By the time it reached Europe, a mutation had already occurred, allowing the Plague to evolve into an airborne killer that outraced the rats and fleas. The plague bacillus swallowed Asia and Europe like a snake swallowing a rabbit, whole, virtually in a single setting. It's now estimated that the death rate in Europe was around 33% overall, meaning close to 25 million of 75 million residents lost their lives. Again, that was just Europe. Using this as a main point, author John Kelly takes the reader on a journey beyond the usual description of the victims to illustrate how the catastrophe affected everyday life. There was a crowd of us, now we are almost alone. While we think of the Black Death for its black buboes, it was the rattling noise in the lungs that sounded like a heavy iron chain which meant certain death. Nuns had the highest mortality rate, as they were the ones who administered to the sick, thus dying days later themselves. Entire communities of Jewish people were wiped out by their Christian neighbors, who blamed the disease on the Jews and burned them alive to drive out the evil spirits. The Catholic Church lost so many priests, that its already dissolute leaders slid further into the mire by admitting men into the Church who were rapists, criminals, and thieves, thus setting up the future Protestant revolution. Clement V and his successors transformed the Church into a spiritual Pez dispenser. There is much to learn here, even though it's been explained in other books. He does come up with some valid points, such as noting that since fleas really do prefer the unwashed, the human flea was just as responsible for spreading the disease as the rat flea. And the medieval human was filthy. Just reading about the polluted water and streets filled with sewage and runoff from slaughtered animals...well, don't read this while eating. I think I liked John Kelly's writing, which goes beyond the usual chronological overview and takes the reader on a travelogue with the bacillus as it makes it way northward from its initial Sicilian landing point. "Fatalist" Sicily There is the violence of the island's sky, which is too blue; of its sun, which is too bright; of its people, who are too passionate; and of its wind, the piercing summer sirocco, which blows northward across the Mediterranean from Tunisia and stings the eyes, burns the throat, and coats the lungs with sand. "Sharp-Elbowed" Marseille If venality was common in Marseille, so was a kind of dogged, undemonstrative resolve. Though it was struck soon after Sicily, Marseille did not collapse into panic or social breakdown. The singular achievement of Black Death Marseille was to resist the wave of anti-Semitism and remain true to its Mediterranean heritage of tolerance. "Babylon Of The West" Avignon Residents boasted that while the Holy City had only two whorehouses, Avignon had eleven. "Solid, Undemonstrative" England Undoubtedly, the average Englishman found the mortality as frightening as the average Florentine or Parisian, but a phlegmatic, self-contained streak in the English character kept outbursts...relatively infrequent. All in all, a fascinating read, thanks to the author's presentation. As I turned the pages, I realized that even when the cities knew the Plague was on its way, there was not much to be done. For all it needed to establish itself was that narrow hour between not knowing and knowing. Book Season = Autumn (mournful dirges)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    A Compelling Melding of Science & History, with Lessons for Today As I sit writing this review, the world is once again ravaged by disease (COVID-19) that is killing thousands around the globe and forcing millions of others to shelter in their homes and pray that this illness would pass over them. So, to say that reading this book about the Black Death, the plague that ravaged Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, is timely would be an understatement. The past can be both teacher and gu A Compelling Melding of Science & History, with Lessons for Today As I sit writing this review, the world is once again ravaged by disease (COVID-19) that is killing thousands around the globe and forcing millions of others to shelter in their homes and pray that this illness would pass over them. So, to say that reading this book about the Black Death, the plague that ravaged Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, is timely would be an understatement. The past can be both teacher and guide in times like these. One of the great things about this book is how it is not just a recounting of death, though there is plenty of that to be had in these pages. The first few chapters and the afterword are devoted to understanding just what kind of a disease the Plague was. So, on top of reading a thorough history about how the Plague decimated the Eurasian continent, you will have better scientific understanding of the disease itself, where it originated from, and how it spread and killed. Of course, Mr. Kelly uses the majority of his narrative to describe the when and where the Plague struck Europe and how it left a wake of human destruction in its path. Through the use of the best statistical information available as well as the numerous contemporary accounts that were written at the time, Mr. Kelly’s history is both incredibly thorough and accessible. There is something for both the hardcore historian and the layman to like in this book. At times, it even seems a little excessive. Mr. Kelly devotes two chapters to the Plague’s rampage through England when probably one chapter would have done. Mr. Kelly does not restrict his history to the disease’s destruction. Mr. Kelly also points out how the Black Death affected society in several negative ways. One of the most horrendous and heartbreaking portions of this book is about the number of pogroms committed against Europe’s Jewish populations that would presage the Holocaust in a number of horrifying ways. Just as COVID-19 is unleashing a wave of anti-Asian American bigotry right now, so too did the Plague unleash a wave of virulent and violent anti-semitism, though the currently bigotry against Asian-Americans is nowhere near as violent as the Plague pogroms were. By the time the Plague dissipated, the tinder of overpopulation, resource strain, climate change and religious & intellectual stagnation that defined Europe in the years prior to its arrival would all be burned away, paving the way for the Renaissance, the Reformation, and modern Europe. By chronicling this critical period in world history, Mr. Kelly has given us a wonder picture of both the medieval era and the calamitous disease that signaled the beginning of its end. It also holds up a mirror to our own time and warns us that virulent disease, if left unchecked, can easily devastate human civilization. Whether you are living in a time of disease yourself or not, you owe it to yourself to read this book about one of the greatest natural disasters to befall humanity.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Emma Sea

    Topic = 5 Writing = 2

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

    It is known by many names but the Great Mortality of the 14th century (also often referred to as The Black Death) was supposed to be the second pandemic of recorded history, the first one being the Plague of Justinian which ravaged the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in 541-542 AD, and the third one that of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. Of course, the present one is not in this book since it was published in 2005 and it contains a very hopeful dedication which reads: “FOR SUZANNE, JONATHAN A It is known by many names but the Great Mortality of the 14th century (also often referred to as The Black Death) was supposed to be the second pandemic of recorded history, the first one being the Plague of Justinian which ravaged the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in 541-542 AD, and the third one that of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. Of course, the present one is not in this book since it was published in 2005 and it contains a very hopeful dedication which reads: “FOR SUZANNE, JONATHAN AND SOFIYA—TO A FUTURE WITHOUT PLAGUE” I read this (with almost 400 pages) in less than two days, mesmerized. For unlike the first book I’ve read about this second pandemic (Christopher Wills, Plagues: Their Origin, History and Future), this one made 14th century Europe alive and it gave me the privilege of knowing some of the personalities (both the renowned and the obscure) who had lived and died during these times, 700 or so years ago. How was this possible? Apparently, some Europeans of this period were meticulous record keepers (especially the English and the Italians). And these records are surprisingly still extant up to now. So from papers like bills of sale, wills, receipts, court records, notarized documents registry of deaths and births, etc. the author gave us both the general and personal histories of this horrific event. The estimates of the casualties vary, from the low of 30% to the high of 60% dead among Europe’s then inhabitants. But whether 30% or 60%, I could translate this bland statistic into something easier on the imagination: let us say my country, the Philippines, now has a population of 100 million souls (it actually has more). Then suppose it would end up having 30 MILLION dead from Covid 19. That would approximately be something like having dead family members in every household. THAT was The Great Mortality, most likely even worse. Entire families, in fact, perished. It’s like you have your neighbours now in the street or subdivision where you live and then after the pandemic several houses in your neighbourhood would become empty, all their previous dwellers having been taken to the hospital, then to the morgue for cremation. One chronicler had written about having buried his wife and their five children, all victims of the plague, with his own hands (it is not clear if he also died afterwards). The dead were everywhere, some eaten by dogs and pigs (which also died en masse). Those who were buried in common graves were stacked up like lasagnas. Then, as now, the people sought succour from God and his saints—to no avail. Like this one about two Italian cities, a Roman Catholic saint, and her holy relics: “The tale of the Black Death in Sicily ia also a tale of two cities, Messina and its southern neighbor, Catania. Believing the Messinese to be vain and supercilious, the Catanians had long disliked their swaggering northern neighbors, and when the town became a collection point for refugees from the port, relations between the two cities soured further. ‘Don’t talk to me if you are from Messina,’ wary townsfolk told the refugees. The Messinese, whose reputation for vanity was not entirely unjustified, did not enhance their standing by promptly asking to borrow Catania’s most precious relics, the bones of the blessed virgin St. Agatha. The Catanians were aghast. Even by the standards of Messinese cheek, this was outrageous. Who would protect Catania from the pestilence while St. Agatha was in the north helping the Messinese drive the plague from the native city? Even Friar Michele becomes a little unhinged when he describes the request. ‘What a stupid idea on the part of you Messinese…Don’t you think if she (St. Agatha) wanted to make her home in Messina she would have said so?’. The crisis deepened when Catania’s patriarch, Gerard Ortho, experienced a fit of guilt. Under public pressure, the patriarch had agreed to ban Messinese refugeees from the city. Now, to appease God and his conscience, not only did he let the refugees talk to him into lending them St. Agatha’s relics, he promised to carry the relics to Messina himself. Again, Catania was aghast. The patriarch seemed to be imposing a form of unilateral spiritual disarmament on the city. An angry crowd quickly gathered and marched on the cathedral. On every other day, Catanians addressed their patriarch on bended knee and with bowed head, but not on this day, with the city under imminent threat from a horrible disease. On this day the marchers spoke truth to power. Confronting the patriarch inside the cathedral, they told him flatly, ’They would rather see him dead before they let the relics go to Messina.’ A man of moral courage, Patriarch Ortho insisted on keeping his word to the Messinese. Finally a compromise was struck. Messina would not get St. Agatha’s relics, but it would get the next best thing: holy water into which the relics had been dipped—Patriarch Ortho would sprinkle the water over the infected city himself. “Like almost all stories about Sicily in the autumn of 1347, the tale of two cities ends badly. Despite the holy water, the plague continued to rage in Messina; despite St. Agatha’s relics, Catania was struck by the pestilence; and despite a close association with two most important symbols of Sicilian spirituality, Patriarch Ortho died a terrible plague death.” Then too, as now, also in desperation, the people sought for a cure. Perhaps the most outlandish was the one proposed by one physician named John Colle who said, following the belief that the plague was airborne and observing that undertakers and those who cared for the sick had seldom been infected, that it can be cured by inhaling foul air. The fouler it is, the more effective. So the sick flocked to municipal latrines and competed in inhaling the noxious fumes coming from human waste. Of course this didn’t work. The cadavers continued piling up. With so dark a subject the author often managed to invest wry humor upon the subject. I had to blink several times, for example, about this supposed “interview” of some of the London victims by archeologists before I realised what the “interview” actually meant: “However, the only people who know firsthand what happened in Black Death London are the dead, and not long ago they were interviewed by a group of British archeologists. In the mid-1980’s, as rush-hour traffic whizzed by overhead, the archeologists descended into a plague pit dozens of feet below the modern city. If a measure of a civilised society is the ability to bury its dead with dignity, then evidence from the plague pit suggests that civilisation held in London. “The mixture of caskets, shrouds, individual graves, and trenches at the site indicates that on days when the dying was light, an effort was made to observe traditional burial rites; people got individual graves and some kind of funeral. Even on days when the death carts came back full and there was no time for ritual, bodies were not simply tossed willy-nilly into a pit. Some of the plague dead in the trenches were buried in caskets and shrouds, and everyone was laid out the same way: side by side, heads to the west, feet to the east. An effort may even have been to segregate plague victims by age and gender. When archeologists excavated the middle section of one trench, dozens of London children gazed up into English sky for the first time in seven hundred years.” One disappointment though: I had been hoping that the final chapter would be something about how, when, or why (even merely the probable reasons) the plague ended. But there was no such chapter. Maybe no one knows how and why the plague disappeared. Maybe plagues and epidemics are just like wild animals which stop gorging on human blood when they are already full.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Susan in NC

    Very evocative, well-researched look at the movement of the Black Plague throughout Europe in the 14th century. I read this book for a Book For All Seasons group challenge to read a book about a pandemic, and this seemed like a good choice, as the 1918 flu pandemic was already covered by another member! Kelly’s Afterword was very relatable, as he says it became depressing to research and write about death on such a large scale — and with many states, including mine, cautiously peeking our noses Very evocative, well-researched look at the movement of the Black Plague throughout Europe in the 14th century. I read this book for a Book For All Seasons group challenge to read a book about a pandemic, and this seemed like a good choice, as the 1918 flu pandemic was already covered by another member! Kelly’s Afterword was very relatable, as he says it became depressing to research and write about death on such a large scale — and with many states, including mine, cautiously peeking our noses out of pandemic quarantine and also facing widespread protests, I was at first engrossed, but skimmed the last two chapters. I was finding it depressing to read about the relentless misery, and although I appreciated learning more about the period and the pandemic that wiped out possibly a third of the European population (numbers differ), and its aftermath, there’s just too much going on right now, between the current pandemic, and now protests. I need a break from misery! Kelly’s writing style and use of primary sources really brought the subject and suffering to life, and as bad as Coronavirus is, the plague seemed even more vicious and insidious, for the speed it traveled and the mortality rate it left in its wake. Also, due to the medieval mindset that the plague was somehow a punishment from God, it was seen as a prophylactic measure by some countries to kill their Jewish populations to please the Almighty. I’ve read several books set in the early Middle Ages, so the anti-Semitism was not a total surprise, but the accounts of the atrocities just added to the sadness and misery. I enjoy reading history to learn, and Kelly does an entertaining and thorough job explaining the likely source of the plague bacillus on the steppes of Eastern Europe, and the possible vectors that brought it to Europe. He also makes extensive use of primary sources to make a distant time and place seem very immediate and relatable to modern readers, and illustrate that much has changed through the centuries, most importantly, perhaps, medical knowledge and sanitation standards. I wasn’t always a fan of his almost anthropomorphizing the plague bacillus, referring to it pausing or taking the season off (as if it were on vacation), but this did serve to emphasize how insidious and frightening the inevitable progress through Europe was. People could only listen to rumors, and pray, and wait for it to arrive. As Kelly notes in the first chapter, “The plague generation wrote about their experiences with a directness and urgency that, seven hundred years after the fact, retains the power to move, astonish, and haunt.”

  18. 4 out of 5

    John Lamb

    When this quarantine ends, I really am going to be insufferable around people as I drop little bits of trivia from books like this. Did you know that people used to inhale the air at pit toilets because they thought it would build immunity? Did you know that in The Decameron people went partying during the plague just like the spring breakers in Florida? Did you know that medieval people burned Jews alive because they thought they were the cause of the plague? I apologize to the recipients of my When this quarantine ends, I really am going to be insufferable around people as I drop little bits of trivia from books like this. Did you know that people used to inhale the air at pit toilets because they thought it would build immunity? Did you know that in The Decameron people went partying during the plague just like the spring breakers in Florida? Did you know that medieval people burned Jews alive because they thought they were the cause of the plague? I apologize to the recipients of my future interactions.

  19. 4 out of 5

    K.

    Trigger warnings: pandemic, death, animal death, death of a child, graphic descriptions of wounds and medical procedures, mentions of rape. 3.5 stars. Look, I read this two and a half weeks and 20 books ago so my thoughts at this point are a little vague. It was definitely interesting and informative. But because it's more of a "here's what happened in France, here's what happened in Germany, here's what happened in Britain" style of telling the story rather than a strict chronological progressio Trigger warnings: pandemic, death, animal death, death of a child, graphic descriptions of wounds and medical procedures, mentions of rape. 3.5 stars. Look, I read this two and a half weeks and 20 books ago so my thoughts at this point are a little vague. It was definitely interesting and informative. But because it's more of a "here's what happened in France, here's what happened in Germany, here's what happened in Britain" style of telling the story rather than a strict chronological progression through the Black Death. I...also didn't love the fact that it ended with a discussion of how recently, some historians have come to the conclusion that the Black Death was something other than bubonic plague, because it felt like the whole thing just sort of trailed off awkwardly. So... *shrug*

  20. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    This book is the literary equivalent of a painting of a pile of corpses done by Lisa Frank. John Kelly works super hard to be whimsical and cutesy, and unfortunately, he succeeds far too often. As a result, his book is frequently downright silly and embarrassing. I cringed as Kelly repeatedly anthropomorphizes both Y. pestis and the plague it caused, as in "Descending through the straits, Y. pestis stopped to pay its respects to Xerxes, the Persian king who built a bridge of boats to ferry his ar This book is the literary equivalent of a painting of a pile of corpses done by Lisa Frank. John Kelly works super hard to be whimsical and cutesy, and unfortunately, he succeeds far too often. As a result, his book is frequently downright silly and embarrassing. I cringed as Kelly repeatedly anthropomorphizes both Y. pestis and the plague it caused, as in "Descending through the straits, Y. pestis stopped to pay its respects to Xerxes, the Persian king who built a bridge of boats to ferry his army across the waterway [of the Dardanelles]" (82). How? How did the bacterium stop to "pay its respects"? Kelly doesn't explain, doesn't bother to think through the metaphor he's trying to establish. It gets worse: Kelly also attributes modern political sensibilities to the plague: "In a fit of anti-unionist frenzy, the pestilence also struck down the leaders of many of [London's] powerful trade guilds" (216), he writes, or "Y. pestis turns out to have been something of a feminist" (286), after explaining how the economic upheaval caused by the destruction of third or more of a society's labor force opened up opportunities for women. Ugh! It's not just that Kelly conflates a consequence with an intention; it's that he has to dress it up in anachronism, instead of letting the information carry its own weight, and as a result, he consistently undercuts the significance of his material. The book spends quite a bit of time discussing anti-Semitism, the frequency with which Jews were blamed for the plague, and the vicious, abominable violence against them. Mercifully, at no point does Kelly try to lighten up his work by turning anti-Semitism into an entity that can stop and pay its respects to this or that historical figure, or have this or that cutesy twentieth/twenty-first-century motive for its movements and activities. Which is a good thing, because it would be completely gross. Kelly does, however, includes lots of gratuitous, pointless, and outdated culture references: "In a film about a race to identify Y. pestis, Leslie Howard would have played Yersin" (42). Seriously? OK, yeah, I know who Leslie Howard is, but he died in 1953. Kelly couldn't think of an actor more recent that him? He describes Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily as "a combination of Scarlett O'Hara and Lizzie Borden" (91). What? Joanna was accused of murdering her husband; Lizzie Borden was a spinster accused of murdering her father and rotten stepmother. It's a disappointment and a mess of a book, especially when compared to something like The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, a book that actually explains a pandemic successfully. I don't quite know how I finished The Great Mortality, and I'm a bit irritated that I bothered.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    Most of us know the history of how the Black Death marched around Europe. We know it probably started in Caffa and made its way full circle to Russia leaving horrible suffering in its wake. John Kelly could have gone the dry as dust scholarly route but instead makes the Plague almost like the villain in a novel. I don't know if its possible to anthropomorphize a disease but that's what he did. It skipped, it ran, it lay in wait. It hid in corners and ran from fire. Some readers liked it, some th Most of us know the history of how the Black Death marched around Europe. We know it probably started in Caffa and made its way full circle to Russia leaving horrible suffering in its wake. John Kelly could have gone the dry as dust scholarly route but instead makes the Plague almost like the villain in a novel. I don't know if its possible to anthropomorphize a disease but that's what he did. It skipped, it ran, it lay in wait. It hid in corners and ran from fire. Some readers liked it, some thought it over the top. If nothing else it made for an interesting way to read about an old story. It did tend to examine some areas more closely than others but that might be because we have more complete records of the after effects of the contagion in places such as England than we do in other parts of Europe. There is technical and medical language that might make some readers feel the need to read some explanations several times over. He makes an attempt to describe the over the top 'wild' behavior of the surviving population after the disease had run its course. There is an easy explanation for that. It is what some in our day call a 'survivor's high'. Being a cancer survivor I recognized the pattern. While I did not descend into any kind of debauchery I did engage in some rather reckless behavior when I first went into remission. That was the reason the remaining people 'partied hard'. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the Great Plague. Just be prepared for the author's approach to the disease itself. It is described in human rather than in cold clinic terms.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ginny Messina

    Packed to the brim with details and stories about life in the Middle Ages, and the horrifying Black Death. It was pretty fascinating to learn about the origins of the Plague and the theories about how it spread to and through Europe. The book could have used some better editing, though. Lots of repetition in general--sometimes pretty much verbatim--and, amazingly, I was actually starting to get sort of bored with the Bubonic Plague by the end. If you love the plague, though (and who doesn’t?) th Packed to the brim with details and stories about life in the Middle Ages, and the horrifying Black Death. It was pretty fascinating to learn about the origins of the Plague and the theories about how it spread to and through Europe. The book could have used some better editing, though. Lots of repetition in general--sometimes pretty much verbatim--and, amazingly, I was actually starting to get sort of bored with the Bubonic Plague by the end. If you love the plague, though (and who doesn’t?) this is well worth reading, or at least dipping into.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Greer

    This was a very readable and meticulously researched account of the Black Death that made great use of contemporary accounts. The statistics are a bit numbing at times, but this reflects the nature of the Black Death itself. The author has a tendency to overuse certain metaphors and occasionally becomes a bit fanciful in recreations of what a particular medieval figure may have been thinking or feeling, but overall I would recommend this book.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    We all (me, the Spouse, my mom, my mom-in-law) love well-written non-fiction about plague. That's probably the most revealing sentence I've ever written. Anyway, this is a very engaging, entertaining even, read. Kelly covers the known and the possible, such as, maybe it wasn't bubonic plague, maybe it was something else like anthrax or Ebola. Its the sort of book that gives you an insight into how history and science work, which alone makes it valuable reading. We all (me, the Spouse, my mom, my mom-in-law) love well-written non-fiction about plague. That's probably the most revealing sentence I've ever written. Anyway, this is a very engaging, entertaining even, read. Kelly covers the known and the possible, such as, maybe it wasn't bubonic plague, maybe it was something else like anthrax or Ebola. Its the sort of book that gives you an insight into how history and science work, which alone makes it valuable reading.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Delbert

    This author wrote that Xerxes was a "Greek king." This author wrote that Xerxes was a "Greek king."

  26. 5 out of 5

    Randall Wallace

    You were an unusual European if, during the Middle Ages, you “washed or changed your clothes more than once or twice a year.” “Edward III scandalized London when he bathed three times in as many months.” “When the assassinated Thomas a Becket was stripped naked, an English chronicler reported that vermin ‘boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron’ from his body.” The plague was caused by Yersinia pestis which couldn’t survive long on tables, chairs and floors. “The greatest urban polluter w You were an unusual European if, during the Middle Ages, you “washed or changed your clothes more than once or twice a year.” “Edward III scandalized London when he bathed three times in as many months.” “When the assassinated Thomas a Becket was stripped naked, an English chronicler reported that vermin ‘boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron’ from his body.” The plague was caused by Yersinia pestis which couldn’t survive long on tables, chairs and floors. “The greatest urban polluter was probably the full chamber pot.” Upstairs residents of cities had to shout, “Look out below!” three times. Peasant huts were usually made from “wattle and daub” – wattle was twigs woven into a lattice and then mud daubed into the lattice to form a crappy thin wall a thrown spear could penetrate. Back then to iron a shirt, a hot flat stone was first warmed in the fire. Greeks and Romans valued bathing but early Christians were the opposite. St. Francis of Assisi was known as an infrequent bather. This explains why a fourteenth century English/French phrasebook actually included: “Hi, the fleas bite me so.” Flanders was the center of cloth-making. The Hundred Years War was the bloodiest conflict of the Middle Ages. Dresses with really low necklines were called the “Windows of Hell”. Marseille was a haven for Jews and a place of tolerance. Mediterranean France itself was warm sensual troubadour country, while in contrast the Atlantic France was intolerant nasty pogrom country. When the plague required a human villain, anti-Semitism reared its head. Jews were also executed to remove the murderer’s debt under the guise of religious reasons - killed for wealth. The Flagellants who paraded around Europe whipping themselves to draw blood (apparently for religious reasons), were also violently anti-Semitic. Wait - why would masochists be also sadists? Why let “the other” get to have all the “fun”? “Our blood-soaked whips are too good for the likes of you, you should be so lucky as to feel pain or discomfort”? And did the Flagellants ever join forces on parades with the Flatulents? Now, that would have been entertaining. Not surprisingly, the English couldn’t understand the allure of half-naked Flagellants hurting themselves. And lessening the allure Flagellants on parade were plague vectors because they charmingly did not bathe. In 1348, Dubrovnik became the creator of the quarantine, and all citizens were forced to make out a will. Vienna gets hit in 1349 and in one year one third of the population will be dead. From Black Death Vienna, came reports of infants clinging to the breasts of dead mothers and children following the carts of the dead parents. England lost a whopping 50% of its population to plague in only two years (1348-1350). The Broken Window theory of human behavior helped England have little upheaval. When things look like they are falling apart in bad times (littered streets, broken windows, etc., can make people despair and turn nasty) The medieval plague ends up killing off one-third of Europe. On the Foster scale of catastrophes, the plague is second only to WWII. Around the world, there were reports of dead lions, camels, dogs, cats, chickens, hare, and oxen, all dead by plague through showing the common boil. The plague really hurt Europe’s infrastructure leaving decaying buildings and farms, unrepaired bridges and the like. Before the Black death you could only leave something to your first born, after the Black death you could leave something to your whole family. In terms of released population pressure, “Plague, in sum, broke the Malthusian deadlock” said historian David Herlihy. The plague weakened authority in the church, priests were dropping like flies just like the regular people and the church seemed powerless. Dissatisfaction with the powerless church during the Black Death was a small but partial reason for the success of Reformation. Jews became moneylenders because Christian law did not allow money lending and money was easily transportable in case of expulsion. “Physicians” didn’t appear until the tenth century, and medical schools don’t appear until the 13th century. I guess before then, physicians would say, “Hi, I apprenticed at Olaf’s House of Leeches, and I like to eyeball and sniff urine in my spare time.” The urine sniffing thing was actually such a thing in early Medieval days, that one Englishman wrote that Astrology was so good, you could tell what was in a patient’s urine without examining it. In case reading this seems crazy, let’s go further: During the Black Death people were actually found crouched down around latrines in the belief that bad or corrupt air would make you immune to the plague. What a perfect date: “Harry if thee loved me, thee would take me down to the latrines for a right good long sniff!” Other tidbits: Russian soldiers in Afghanistan changed their underwear once every three months. No wonder three quarters of Russian soldiers were ultimately hospitalized for disease. Researchers in Colorado once found 900 fleas on a single squirrel. A good book and a fun read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    Probably closer to two stars but let’s creep back to the beginning or, even better, before that. A number of years ago I read Philip Ziegler’s Black Death. I may have picked it up in Cincinnati? I’m not sure. I read it quickly and found it an adequate introduction to the historical calamity which swept across the steppe to engulf Europe. The book didn’t cite original sources but was sage enough to echo previous generations without much controversy. Subsequently two students over the years since Probably closer to two stars but let’s creep back to the beginning or, even better, before that. A number of years ago I read Philip Ziegler’s Black Death. I may have picked it up in Cincinnati? I’m not sure. I read it quickly and found it an adequate introduction to the historical calamity which swept across the steppe to engulf Europe. The book didn’t cite original sources but was sage enough to echo previous generations without much controversy. Subsequently two students over the years since have asked me (!) about the geopolitical consequences of bubonic plague. That was an awkward turn. I held higher hopes for this one, which does cite primary sources but still holds Ziegler as the lodestar. The author is also overly reliant on a text from the 1960s, On Thermonuclear War—which the author holds as being an equivalent condition tot hose endured the ravages of plague. The author also appears to relish in the gory and sordid. These details are rather prominent in his analysis. The author is impressed that the social institutions of the time were sufficiently resilient to withstand the horrific loss of life, but he never asks how. They just were. This was a disappointing experience.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer (aka EM)

    This is an excellent overview, written for the layperson. Extremely well-researched (once I figured out the endnote section!!) without being ponderous. Kelly's anecdotal, story-telling style--which does take his interpretation a little far beyond the facts (see comments)--is like a spoonful of sugar, which is not to say that he's making the Plague more palatable, but he is bringing energy and momentum into what could have become a truly mind-numbing set of statistics. A couple of things I really This is an excellent overview, written for the layperson. Extremely well-researched (once I figured out the endnote section!!) without being ponderous. Kelly's anecdotal, story-telling style--which does take his interpretation a little far beyond the facts (see comments)--is like a spoonful of sugar, which is not to say that he's making the Plague more palatable, but he is bringing energy and momentum into what could have become a truly mind-numbing set of statistics. A couple of things I really appreciated: - he devotes the last chapter to debunking the theories of modern Plague Deniers: that the Black Death was not bubonic plague, but anthrax, Ebola, something else. He carefully details then counters the current controversies. Then, he presents new evidence (DNA samples from the teeth of 14th C plague victims compared to those of the third and last plague pandemic in India, which confirm it was the same bacteria that caused both). I've seen synopses of this book where it makes it appear as though this book supports the Plague Deniers' position. It does not. - yes, he anthropomorphizes the y. pestis bacteria. He follows it on its journey from its origins to its final destination, likening it to an army, a military campaign, a terrorist attack. This is remarkably effective at 'humanizing' not just the disease, but its effects on individuals and on societies. Most of all, it is an organizing device that provides never-flagging momentum, and helps him avoid repetition and backtracking. I have almost zero tolerance for most non-fiction but here, while there was a little repetition, overall Kelly was able to synethesize a whack o' information without (in my view) becoming too pedantic. Couple of things to brace yourself for (other than the obvious gruesomeness): - where he does not have direct evidence, he uses comparisons from later events as proof points. I can give him the benefit of the doubt when he compares 14th C Black Death plague in London to 17th C plague in London. But comparing the effects of Nagasaki/Hiroshima to those of 1347 Italy? The post WWI Lost Generation to 1352 Western Europe? It's a bit of a stretch. - I sniffed a sexist Anglophile in places. The British response to Plague was portrayed with a lighter hand; their behaviour presented as slightly more heroic. Why introduce Monica, St. Augustine's overbearing mother, along with Churchill's? Some other places too, more egregious. I've blocked them from my memory now. - he often drops major fact bombs, draws a conclusion, but doesn't tell the whole story. Checking the endnotes, there IS more of a story to tell. The little girl, named Ryke ('wild bird"), who was the sole survivor of a Nordic village found months later by a rescue party. OMG. Can you imagine? Details, I want details. - typos, typos, typos. Where the hell are the copy editors/proofreaders these days!? I'm available, and my rates are reasonable.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Evan

    A creditable and highly readable overview of the subject, perhaps somewhat hampered by lack of enough anecdotal "on-the-ground" records to add personal flavor. Most enjoyable part of the book for me was the description of the papal town of Avignon and its filth and intrigues. Kelly provides a clear arc of the disease's progression; this might be the best go-to, primer book on the subject of the great plague of the middle ages (and, as he makes clear, it was not the only plague to have broken out A creditable and highly readable overview of the subject, perhaps somewhat hampered by lack of enough anecdotal "on-the-ground" records to add personal flavor. Most enjoyable part of the book for me was the description of the papal town of Avignon and its filth and intrigues. Kelly provides a clear arc of the disease's progression; this might be the best go-to, primer book on the subject of the great plague of the middle ages (and, as he makes clear, it was not the only plague to have broken out). Even so, there's a lot of wearying repetition in it, especially when Kelly traces the progression of the disease in England and he seems bound to note casualty numbers as it marches along individual towns. The book loses steam here. Still in all, recommendable to all history buffs and those with a morbid curiosity.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Doreen Petersen

    This was a good book however I would have liked to have had more info on the everyday social impact of the disease.

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