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

3.88  ·  Rating Details  ·  4,589 Ratings  ·  338 Reviews
A compelling and harrowing history of the Black Death epidemic that swept through Europe in the mid–14th century killing 25 million people. It was one of the most devastating human disasters in history.

"The bodies were sparsely covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured them . And believing it to be the end of the world, no one wept for the dead, for all expecte
Hardcover, 364 pages
Published February 1st 2005 by Harper (first published 2005)
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The Coming Plague by Laurie GarrettThe Great Mortality by John     KellyFever 1793 by Laurie Halse AndersonParasite Rex by Carl ZimmerThe Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Terrifying Plagues
2nd out of 26 books — 6 voters
The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingCity of Bones by Cassandra ClareVampire Academy by Richelle MeadCity of Glass by Cassandra Clare
I will die with this in my hand
241st out of 307 books — 257 voters

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Community Reviews

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Anna (Bobs Her Hair)
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.
Jan 15, 2013 Julie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 16, 2010 K. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites, 2008, disease
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",
Dec 30, 2012 Hannah rated it liked it
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 progressio
May 15, 2015 Sharon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in the Great Plague of Europen
Shelves: history
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 th ...more
Jennifer (aka EM)
Jul 26, 2010 Jennifer (aka EM) rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jennifer (aka EM) by: Trevor
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
Sep 12, 2008 Greer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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 ...more
Ginny Messina
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?) th ...more
Bob Schnell
Feb 05, 2015 Bob Schnell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, read-in-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
Sep 10, 2014 Jon rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This author wrote that Xerxes was a "Greek king."
Feb 10, 2014 ☕Laura rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book presents a comprehensive narrative of the plague's catastrophic trek through Europe during the Black Death of the mid-1300's. It appears to be quite well-researched, with appropriate footnotes and an abundance of references provided. It does not pretend to present as fact that information which cannot be known with certainty, but presents the range of educated opinions with an indication of the most commonly agreed upon conclusion. As academically sound as the books appears to be, howe ...more
Dec 31, 2010 Melody rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This may well be the funniest book I've ever read about the Black Death. Kelly's a good writer with a wry sense of humor. I also enjoyed the way he personified the plague- it's something I've always done in my head, too. I can just see Yersinia pestis striding through the countryside, scythe in hand.

I've read a lot of plague books, so much of the information was familiar to me- but there's a lot of fascinating first-hand reporting from various sources, much of it new to me. The last chapter, abo
Baal Of
Jul 14, 2014 Baal Of rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This is a fascinating, if somewhat flawed book about the history of the plague, centered around the years 1348 and 1349. The author is at his best when tracing the path of the plague through the cities and towns of Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, with plenty of reference to the lives of various leaders, merchants, et al. I would have liked more information from a scientific and epidemiological perspective, but that is clearly outside the author's normal purview. The epilogue in which he dis ...more
Evan Leach
Feb 24, 2013 Evan Leach rated it really liked it
This is a really good book. Not a feel-good story (duh), but a highly enlightening read. Kelly covers every aspect of the Black Death: from its introduction to an unsuspecting Europe, to the widespread devastation it spread, to the sociological changes it ultimately encouraged. Well researched and professionally written, this gives an important (and unappreciated) subject its due. 4 stars, recommended.
Oct 31, 2015 Alvin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This mostly engaging and informative read tries to be both an epidemiological and a social history. The former aspect of the book was repetitive and, to my non-scientifical mind, dull. As the plague sweeps across Eurasia, Kelly spends an inordinate amount of time in each and every locale dithering over the mortality rate. Was it 35 to 45% or 55 to 60% - experts disagree (and readers are bored). There's also a lot of speculation about which exact cootie caused the disease, when a little would hav ...more
Ryan Kennedy
Jun 02, 2015 Ryan Kennedy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book to feel better about my own existence. It worked. Reading about a devastating plague wreak havoc on Europe and Asia makes me ok with my own suffering and shortcomings. It also reaffirms my doubts about existence being a good thing. When you read about the worst of times, you realize that your own suffering, great or small, isn't special and the burden (I believe) is lighter once you realize that pain plays a greater role than pleasure in the human condition. I also admired the r ...more
Emma Sea
Topic = 5
Writing = 2

Jan 15, 2009 Samantha rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like disease and don't mind kind of boring books
I am fascinated by disease and usually assume the worst when I, or someone close to me, gets sick. Cough? It's definitely tuberculosis. Tired? That's probably African Sleeping Sickness. Fever? You've probably got Ebola. A touch of diarrhea? That's most likely dysentery. So, I went into this book ready for the death and distruction of the disease and eager to be absolutely fascinated by it. The book wasn't bad. It was a little textbooky for my taste, a little boring and I disliked the anthropomor ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Sep 25, 2009 Jill Hutchinson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-history
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 struc ...more
Jun 12, 2011 Wade rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best books I've ever read, and one of the most superb historical books about a very specific topic on a continental scale. The author has read the medical and historical literature including what seems like all first hand accounts. The story is woven exquisitely and he ties in humanity to the horror. Unfortunately what humanity did to itself (the jews) during the plague was far worse than the Plague. The ending chapter which discusses the impact of the plague was exactly what I was lo ...more
Amazon blurb: A book chronicling one of the worst human disasters in recorded history really has no business being entertaining. But John Kelly's The Great Mortality is a page-turner despite its grim subject matter and graphic detail. Credit Kelly's animated prose and uncanny ability to drop his reader smack in the middle of the 14th century, as a heretofore unknown menace stalks Eurasia from "from the China Sea to the sleepy fishing villages of coastal Portugal [producing] suffering and death o ...more
Below is an excerpt of a longer essay you can find on my blog The Celery Museum.

The author of The Great Mortality: An intimate history of the Black Death, John Kelly, is that rare almost apocryphal being, a popular historian who uses primary source material with the subtlety of an academic historian. He writes with the literary engagement and aplomb academic historians feel they must eschew to be taken seriously, while employing mountains of primary source research, direct quotes and occasionall
Nov 02, 2011 Inder rated it it was ok
"It was okay" pretty much sums this book up. I learned some things and it was not a total waste of my time. But, it was not well written. Attempts at poetry came off sounding stupid. I'm sorry, but anthropomorphizing the bubonic plague bacillus? (A) It has been done. (B) It was stupid the first hundred times. Yawn.

Yet, I did learn some things. My goodness, I have never read such brutal and explicit accounts of the anti-Semitic pogroms that occurred during the European plague epidemic. Shit! Tota
Jan 30, 2015 Marti rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My knowledge of the Middle Ages is sketchy so I'm in no position to judge whether the author committed any factual errors (as other reviewers have pointed out). However, after reading this, I acquired a clearer picture of the Plague years 1346-1349.

The thing that makes this a compelling read is the fact that the author tried to use letters and other materials from contemporary chroniclers which provided the kind of immediacy that is generally lacking in works on the Middle Ages.

And yes, I found
Mar 11, 2015 Sam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Definitely the most comprehensive and well-written book on the Medieval plagues of Europe that's out there right now. It reads like a novel. Not in an annoying way, I just mean that it's written in a way that makes a really dense amount of facts and science more easy to digest than one would think possible. The eyewitness accounts are particularly striking.
E.M. Powell
Apr 25, 2012 E.M. Powell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Dec 22, 2013 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned-books
A comprehensive look at the spread of what is known as 'The Black Death' through Europe in the 14th century. Taking a scientific-historical approach keeps the book fresh and I felt it didn't become dull. The book examines the social and religious impact of the plague rather than a political stance, one of the things I feel there is little information on, and Kelly follows the pestilence from it's predicted beginnings in Asia, causing mass death as it travels to the far reaches of the British Isl ...more
Jul 09, 2009 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall a very readable story of The Black Death. Less academic and text bookish than many, it had a good balance of historical perspective and human anecdotes. Although some were bothered by the anthropomorphizing of the plague bacilli, I found this technique used sparingly to be rather entertaining and create suspense.

A surprise to me was the chapter on Anti-Semitism during the Black Death. This was new history to me and very disturbing. Easily an under reported part of the Black Death story.
Kyle Potter
Jun 15, 2011 Kyle Potter rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
John Kelly's history of the Black Death is carefully researched and eminently readable. The first chapters examine the origins of the plague and discuss how it was transmitted from fleas to humans and carried across Europe by black rats and international trade. The scientific discussions are well-written for a lay audience, giving the reader a good understanding of how and why the plague spread as quickly as it did. The work is fast-paced and rich with anecdotes about medical practices of the mi ...more
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John Kelly specializes in narrative history. He is the author of The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People; The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death; The Most Devastating Plague of all Time; Three on the Edge; and more. Kelly lives in New York City and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.
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“Additionally, many widows took over family shops or businesses- and, not uncommonly, ran them better than their dead husbands. Y.pestis [black death germ] turns out to have been something of a feminist.” 5 likes
“[According to 1348 theorists, poisoning of Christian water by Jews was the cause of Black Death.]

Even the poison used to contaminate the Christian water supply was described in meticulous detail. It was "about the size of an egg," except when it was the "size of a nut" or a "large nut," "a fist" or "two fists"- and it came packaged in "a leather pouch," except when it was packaged in "linen cloth," "a rag," or a "paper coronet"; and the poison was variously made from lizards, frogs, and spiders- when it was not made from the hearts of Christians and from Holy Communion wafers.”
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