The Great Mortality

Surprisingly, this is the first plague book review I’ve posted.

A retro review from September 10, 2012 …

Review: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, John Kelly, 2005.Great Mortality

If you are interested in the Black Death and have never read a general history of it, Kelly is as good a place to start as any. It’s as well-written and full of anecdote as Norman F. Cantor’s shorter In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made and has not dated as much in its biological speculations. It ranges farther in space and time than Philip Ziegler’s mostly England-bound The Black Death. While it has almost has many stats as Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, it thins them out with more prose.

If you fancy yourself a bit of an amateur plague enthusiast, this book is an enjoyable read. Kelly has an eye for interesting people affected by the plague. We not only hear about Boccaccio, but Joanna Queen of Naples and Sicily, beautiful defendant in a 1348 murder trial during the height of the plague in Avignon. We trace the final days of Joan Plantagenet, daughter of Edward III, who died of the plague while traveling to take marriage vows in Spain. We hear how the vermin “boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron” when the clothes were stripped off the body of the murdered Thomas Becket.

Kelly bounces around a great deal in time and space to set the context for his plague tales. Thus, we don’t just hear about Mongol plague dead being catapulted over the walls of the Genoese colony at Caffa but also how there came to be such a settlement on the shores of the Black Sea. We don’t just hear of the murder of half of Strassbur’s Jews on Feb. 14, 1349 but how Europe’s anti-Semitism may have pushed into a deadlier form by an intra-faith dispute among Jews in the mid-13th century. We learn that the roving bands of Flagellants actually date back to a movement in 1260.

Besides his literary style, Kelly does put some interesting emphasis on areas not dealt with extensively by the above plague authors.

He shows how some of the Great Mortality’s first victims may have been from the Christian Nestorian colony around Lake Issyuk Kul in Mongolia. While other historians have noted the generally terrible conditions in 14th century Europe – constant warfare, failing crops, and the Malthusian trap of population outstripping resources, Kelly interestingly develops these notions. Kelly, more than any of the above authors, looks at other instances of the plague in history besides just the so-called second pandemic of 1347. Thus he draws analogies between the unsanitary conditions fostered by medieval sieges and the counter-tactic of chevauchee (in essence, giant search-and-destroy missions conducted against civilians to force feudal lords out of their fortresses to defend them) with the presence of bubonic plague among the unhygienic Russian soldiers occupying Afghanistan. Kelly speculates, with some medical support, that the malnutrition of the Great Famine, which lasted from 1315-132,2 weakened the immune systems of some survivors who were at a vulnerable age. That is the explanation he offers for a high rate of mortality among adults in their 30s and 40s during the Great Mortality. And he devotes some time to speculation that the vector of the Great Mortality may not have been just the rat flea, X. cheopis, but also the human flea, pulex irritans. That may explain why so few contemporary accounts note the mass amounts of dead rats you would expect during a plague pandemic.

Along with other historians, he notes the many effects the plague had on European culture including a decaying infrastructure due to lack of young workers, a result that inspired a contemporary bit of homework when students were asked to translate “The roof of an old house had almost fallen on me yesterday” into Latin. And he notes that frequent reappearances of the plague may have indirectly helped push Europe away from its Malthusian trap. While subsequent plague epidemics were never as deadly, they, coupled with other diseases like flu, smallpox, syphilis, typhus, and the sweating sickness, kept the population from quickly bouncing back. The survivors, though, were wealthier than the pre-plague days.

While he doesn’t go off on the improbable speculation that the Great Mortality, as its contemporaries dubbed it, was not plague but anthrax – a major part of Cantor’s work, some of his speculations on how the disease has mutated since 1347 or the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century AD, have dated. The most recent evidence, using DNA analysis of plague victims in England, shows little mutation of the bacteria yersina pestis since the 14th century. There also is little direct evidence linking yersina pestis to the Justinian’s Plague. [They turn out to be different strains.]

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