John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time is a very good book in a horrifying kind of way. I suppose that’s what inspired me to read it — to see just how horrifying a horrifying event can really be. Much of the interest this book held for me came simply from learning a little more about what life was like during the middle ages. There’s something disturbingly enjoyable about learning how people in earlier times lived, especially in times as far from ours as the 14th century — to think about the isolated villages, the stinking cities, the primitive homes, the sharing of houses with farm animals, the near-complete absence of bathing, the lack of modern medicine.
But learning about the plague itself was fascinating too. Kelly gets repetitious at times, but generally he does a good job telling the story of how and where the plague developed (or at least our current theories on the subject) and how it spread through Europe and Asia. He covers the science of it pretty thoroughly — how the virus works, what it does to bodies (horrifying), how it travels — and then looks at various regions of Europe, telling how the plague affected each place differently and describing the various ways people responded to it. Often this meant vicious anti-Semitism; Kelly tells of groups of people called Flagellants, for example, who traveled around whipping themselves and killing Jews, in the hope that this would somehow save them.
I was glad for all the information Kelly offered on what life in the 14th century was like, but I found myself particularly fascinated by the larger sweep of history he described. He told the story of collapse after the fall of the Roman Empire, a period when the population dropped and plague was uncommon because it was harder for the virus to travel when fewer people were around. This was followed by a period of resurgence, when the population slowly grew, more and more farming took place, more food was grown, and living standards rose. But by the 14th century, the population was becoming too large for the amount of food people could produce and things began to stagnate. Not only that, but temperatures began to drop and the climate became unstable. These developments caused a lot of death and suffering themselves, and then the plague came along to make an awful situation that much worse. Kelly talks of mortality rates as high as 60-70% in some places. He says that many areas of Europe lost so much of its population that the numbers didn’t get back to their pre-plague levels until the 19th century.
I found this history of the up and down fortunes of Europe to be so compelling partly because we are living in such uncertain times ourselves and it’s interesting to think about how people in earlier times handled the uncertainty. It makes me wonder how people will write the history of our times (and it makes me annoyed to realize I’ll never know). It’s also easy to think of the vast sweep of human history as moving generally in the direction of improvement — the population steadily goes up, science and medicine steadily improve, we gradually become more and more tolerant and enlightened. But that’s not true, obviously, and something as out of our control as climate (oh, wait — something that used to be out of our control) can easily disrupt our always-tenuous civilization.
I seem to have a knack lately for choosing depressing books — I’m glad I read this one, and I generally have no problem whatsoever with depressing books, but with doom and gloom in the news these days, it’s probably not the best time for them. I suppose I could be grateful that we’re not experiencing anything as horrible as the mass deaths of the plague, but my mind doesn’t work that way. Instead, I just get sad at all the suffering out there and the senselessness of it all. I will never go back to being a believer, but there are times I miss the sense that there’s a God out there watching over everything. But the idea that there’s a God out there watching over everything makes no sense at all, so I don’t really want to believe it.
Okay, time something light to read, right?