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

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

2

Jan 01, 2013

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. ...more
0

Oct 25, 2012

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.
4

Oct 27, 2017

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 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. ...more
5

Dec 05, 2007

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. ...more
4

Sep 17, 2009

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 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. ...more
3

Dec 22, 2012

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 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.
...more
4

Mar 01, 2018

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 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.) ...more
4

Dec 18, 2018

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 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. ...more
5

Sep 23, 2018

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 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) ...more
3

Nov 07, 2017

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 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.
...more
2

Oct 23, 2017

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 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. ...more
4

Aug 15, 2019

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 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* ...more
4

Sep 09, 2012

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 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. ...more
4

Sep 06, 2008

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.
4

Jul 17, 2010

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.

...more
3

Jun 18, 2008

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 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. ...more
3

Jan 01, 2011

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?) 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. ...more
5

Jul 09, 2014

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.
3

Aug 13, 2018

The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.

So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.

Reviewed for The Bibliophibian. ...more
4

Jan 29, 2015

In the book "The Great Mortality" author John Kelly tries to relate the history of the Black Death in modern language complete with an anthropomorphic villain (the plague), scientific analysis, man-on-the-scene quotes and even a bit of snarky commentary. Thank goodness for the bright bits of levity, otherwise it would be all too easy to get bogged down with graphic descriptions of death, death and more death.

I found it especially fascinating that 650 years later, the same scenarios keep playing In the book "The Great Mortality" author John Kelly tries to relate the history of the Black Death in modern language complete with an anthropomorphic villain (the plague), scientific analysis, man-on-the-scene quotes and even a bit of snarky commentary. Thank goodness for the bright bits of levity, otherwise it would be all too easy to get bogged down with graphic descriptions of death, death and more death.

I found it especially fascinating that 650 years later, the same scenarios keep playing out. There is a crisis, people are dying by the thousands, whom do we blame? The Jews, the atheists, the sinners, the corrupt clergy, the scientists and even the medieval equivalent of groupies all get their share of the blame. Doesn't that sound like the comments section of any online news story today? Zealots today are warning of the end times as predicted in the Bible. Zealots of 1350 were saying the same thing only with more reasons due to the plague, famine, endless wars, earthquakes, floods, etc. Yet when the Black Death had run its course and the human population was decreased by up to 50%, the meek did not inherit the earth, the reveling sinners did and they partied like it was 1999. The Black Death even has deniers, much like the Holocaust. Same sh*t, different century. When will we ever learn? ...more
4

Mar 10, 2018

To anyone interested in the Black Death this is certainly the book for you. I read a few chapters of this for a class and decided to read the whole book cause why not lol. This book really puts into perspective just how devastating the the Black Death was in Europe, and around the world. John Kelly goes through historical documents, and other historians research on how the disease spread from town to town plus all the reasons on what made this particular outbreak of plague so devastating. I To anyone interested in the Black Death this is certainly the book for you. I read a few chapters of this for a class and decided to read the whole book cause why not lol. This book really puts into perspective just how devastating the the Black Death was in Europe, and around the world. John Kelly goes through historical documents, and other historians research on how the disease spread from town to town plus all the reasons on what made this particular outbreak of plague so devastating. I cannot even fathom the horror this disease took on the human population at the time, but Kelly does a wonderful job of putting you into the shoes of those who lived during the great mortality. I will forever be grateful to be born in the 21st century because boy how the toilet and modern medicine has advanced us as a species.

I do wish that the author would have done more research on other parts of the world as this book is very heavily European driven. The author does mention other parts of the world briefly such as China and India, but not nearly as much as he talks about different cities in Europe. Over all I feel this is a great book for those curious about the causes and affects of the Black Death. ...more
2

May 11, 2019

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 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. ...more
5

Jul 04, 2018

I loved this book. I’ve never read anything about the Black Death where the victims were described with such humanity. Kelly describes the onset, height and conclusion of this particular plague in such great and accessible detail. I would definitely recommend this to my friends if they were interested in learning more about the plague.
5

Dec 01, 2017

Who could imagine that an ugly, awful way to die could keep you turning pages faster and faster. What a way to go! Plus, I learned so much about this period of history - yet it isn't a boring, history lesson.
5

Apr 22, 2012

Who says non-fiction can't be as engrossing as fiction? Well, it wouldn't apply in this case. Kelly's book is every bit as engrossing as any fast-paced novel. His account of the 1347-1351 plague that decimated Europe's populations is masterly. He has complete control over the big picture (and wowsa, this picture is big!)but also brings the lot of individuals to the reader in a brilliantly engaging way. At times, the Black Death itself seems to take on a life of its own and is like the worst sort Who says non-fiction can't be as engrossing as fiction? Well, it wouldn't apply in this case. Kelly's book is every bit as engrossing as any fast-paced novel. His account of the 1347-1351 plague that decimated Europe's populations is masterly. He has complete control over the big picture (and wowsa, this picture is big!)but also brings the lot of individuals to the reader in a brilliantly engaging way. At times, the Black Death itself seems to take on a life of its own and is like the worst sort of bad guy in a thriller. The portrayal of the sense of panic and helplessnes of the people who lived at the time is so, so well done. The notes at the back of the book shed some light into the volume of research that went into this book. But al the research in the world doesn't make for a master story teller- for that is what John Kelly is. ...more

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