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Cannonball Read #20: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly

I know a certain amount about history. I mean, I read. I watch the History Channel and Discovery and NatGeo with The Boyfriend. I have access to the interweb. However, I will admit that (like most people) there are certain parts of history I know more about than others--basically, I know a lot about the things they felt the need to teach in school, less about the eras deemed "unimportant." I know about the Greeks, the Romans, the Norman Conquest (which never fails to bring up the mental picture of some little stereotypical-looking nerd huffing up the beach through a chilly, foggy British morning, saying "I'm Norman, and I'm here to conquer you."), the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. There are some very clear and inexcusable gaps in my historical education, to be honest. Thus, when I obtain a book about one subject, only to discover a hidden lode of historical information, I am delighted. This has been the case with many of the disaster books I've been reading--come for the Lusitania, stay for the development of submarine warfare during WWI, for example. The same was true with The Great Mortality.

During the middle of the 14th century, a deadly disease appeared out of Asia with little warning and spread across Europe within a decade. It had many names--Black Death, Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague, Y. Pestis (for the Latin lovers among us)--but the most common way it was referred to at the time was as "The Great Mortality." In the course of 10 - 12 years, nearly a third of the people on the European continent died (as well as a great [but poorly documented] number in western Asia.) Major cities ground to a halt--some smaller towns were all but wiped off the map. This disease caused major changes for society and culture in the midst of the dark ages.

Kelly researches the circumstances (both human and environmental) which lead up to the plague, including several natural disasters as well as the shift of many people into the dirty, crowded cities. He explains the trade routes at the time in an attempt to figure out exactly where the plague originally came from, as well as how it arrived in Europe. He continues, city by city, citing original documents from survivors at the time, to show where the plague went, how it spread, and how the people reacted when it arrived. There were varied responses--some cities behaved as though they were under siege, attempted to wall themselves in and wait out the danger. Some tried to fight off the disease, using all the latest in medical ideology. Kelly also documents some of the more unconventional responses to the spread of the plague, including the rise of the flagellants (a show-stopping religious movement that spread across Europe nearly as quickly as the plague itself) and the persecution and murder of the Jews of Europe.

The deft way Kelly weaves in scientific facts and theories with historical context and first-hand accounts makes for a very interesting book. It seems well-researched but wasn't dull or difficult to read for a person with very little scientific knowledge. Some of the descriptions can be stomach-turning, though, so I probably wouldn't recommend it to the faint of heart. On the whole, however, I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in either diseases or the history of the 14th century.


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