The Great Mortality

mortality 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?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

14 responses to “The Great Mortality

  1. Thanks for sharing! I’ve always had a twisted interest in the Black Death. I can’t pinpoint the beginning of my interest, but I remember in part it began after reading The Plague many moons ago while earning my undergraduate degree.

    (This is also helpful because one of my resolutions for this year is to read more non fiction!)


  2. I remember reading this a few years ago. I thought it was amusing, especially since he made up the actual stories, but based them on how it might’ve been.


  3. It’s amazing when you think about the long term after-effects of the population loss throughout Europe.

    Sounds like an interesting book!


  4. The plague and its effects on the population and the feudal system fascinates me. One of the horrifying aspects would have been the disposal of the dead when so many died so quickly. I’m adding this one to my list. Thanks, Dorothy.


  5. Thanks for the review. I have been reading a lot about medieval history the past year and this book sounds fascinating, especially as it also seems to take into consideration the greater picture.


  6. This is a wonderful review, Dorothy, but wow, yes, a heavy and depressing read in parts. I find January a tricky month to read the grim stuff – my hand reaches unbidden towards comfort reads and comedies (if it can find any!).


  7. Isn’t this a good book? I read a few years ago and really enjoyed it for all the reasons you describe. I do seem to recall that Kelly appeared to take particular delight is describing just how gruesome the plague was. I always had to be sure I wasn’t eating anything when I read the book because some of it make my stomach lurch.


  8. I started this one last year (or maybe the year before) and got as far as the introduction and then set it aside–not because I wasn’t interested only because my track record with NF isn’t so great at times. I do find it a fascinating (if gloomy )subject though–both about the disease and how people lived. Your post makes me want to dig it out and try to get to it this year.


  9. I’ve been interested in reading this one for some time now, and I’m glad to hear it gives such a thorough description of human history. Meanwhile, if you’d like something un-depressing, that will make you laugh, and that has a very amusing take on God, angels, devils, witches, Armageddon, and humans, may I recommend Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s _Good Omens_?


  10. Kind of makes you appreciate living in the current age though, doesn’t it? But a fascinating topic for anyone with the stomach for it. Will be interested to see what you read next 😉


  11. You’ve been blogging for awhile, so I’m sure I’m not the first to pass along the Premio Dardos Award to Of Books and Bicycles. Regardless, I love Of Books and Bicycles and wanted to recognize and thank you for your valuable contribution to the blogging community. Thanks for putting in the time to make this such a great site.


  12. Chris — I suspect a lot of people are interested in the plague — there’s something so fascinating about wide-scale disaster. It feels a bit twisted, but it’s true! I hope you enjoy the book if you do pick it up.

    Brandon — I didn’t look all that closely for an explanation of which stories came from research and which were made up — did he ever make that clear? How nonfiction writers handle that sort of thing is always interesting.

    Bardiac — oh, yes, it is amazing. Kelly doesn’t go into how it affected art and literature, but that would be fascinating to look into.

    Jenclair — you will like this book, I’m sure. He does talk quite a bit about what people did with all the dead bodies and it did sound quite horrifying. Beyond what we can imagine, I’m sure.

    Anna — yes, one of the things I liked about it most was its big-picture focus. It focused mainly on the 14th century but didn’t limit itself to that, and the connections it makes to other times are great.

    Litlove — I’m turning to something fun just as soon as I can. I just finished another depressing book, which was a great book, but my God do I need some relief!

    Stefanie — I have a pretty strong stomach, but even I was careful not to bring this book to the table. He does take delight in the gruesomeness — the way he kept personifying the plague in an effort to show how vicious it was cracked me up.

    Danielle — some books I think you can just read the introduction and skip the rest, and while this book has a lot of good info in later chapters, you do get the best stuff early on. On the other hand, the book is fairly short and won’t get you bogged down.

    Emily — thank you for the recommendation! Becky also gave me a fun read — E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia, which I hope to get to soon. It’s very nice of my friends to take care of me!

    Couchtrip — oh, yes, I thought many times as I read this, thank God I live when I do! This makes me wonder if people several hundred years from now (assuming we make it that long) will say the same thing about us …

    JaneGS — why, thank you! I appreciate the award very much. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting — I am really glad you do.


  13. This sounds utterly fascinating. What you said about how history will be rewritten and not being around to see it is something that annoys me too. I was thinking about that in particular to books that are classics. What will be considered a classic 100 years from now? Oh how I’d love to know… Ok, I think I need something light after just thinking about that again 😉


  14. Iliana — I’d love to know what will become a classic too. I bet it would shock us, and we would find it hard to believe. Future classics might even be books we are barely aware of now.


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