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Plagues and Peoples

3.89  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,946 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 11th 1977 by Anchor (first published 1976)
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Anna Not sad. It was informative and thought-provoking.
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Sep 06, 2009 Becky rated it it was amazing
Finally finished this book. It took me a while to read it due to personal stuff and the subject matter, but it ended up being one of my favorites (hence the labor of love category). It being a favorite is leading me to believe I have a soft spot for environmental history. Yes the book was much about epidemiology, but the focus was also very much on how certain diseases were possible within certain environments – how they got there, how they survived there, and how those environments were affecte ...more
Aug 03, 2009 Steve rated it really liked it
An entertaining, if depressing, book on how history has been shaped by disease and pathogens. If you liked Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, this book is all about the germs, and about more than just the modern era: there are interesting comments on the Black Death and the rise of "childhood diseases" and why the tropics are still to be feared in terms of disease (and why climate change is so worrisome, even though that fear postdates the book by a few decades).

Briana Patterson
This book was alright. The author knows his stuff and he's very informative. Most of his conclusions are reasonable, and he provides a fresh look at history that his contemporaries have not accounted for.

However, I hold several reservations concerning his guesswork where information was lacking. McNeill readily admits that he's working with limited sources and most of his conclusions are fine, but there are times when I don't agree with his logic. There's also some outdated concepts within his a
Stephanie Marie
Mar 03, 2016 Stephanie Marie rated it did not like it
Shelves: reviewed
I had to read this to do a book report for AP world history, and it was definitely a painfully boring waste of time. I skimmed many parts and grew physically tired every time I forced myself to read from it. Plagues and Peoples was so incredibly dull that it took me at least a month to trudge through it, but the book was still informative and resourceful for class work (I couldn't imagine anyone reading this for fun).
Laura Jean
Jan 31, 2015 Laura Jean rated it really liked it
When I was in undergrad, I created a timeline of events in the ancient world for a class and noticed that plagues seemed to follow the importation of new spices, and religious upheaval (spreading/decimating) seemed to follow plagues. For years in the back of my mind I wondered if anyone else had ever looked at historical events through the lens of disease, and lo and behold, all these years later, I found out someone did--

Plagues and Peoples is a general survey of world history with a particular
Lauren Brackenbury
Feb 09, 2014 Lauren Brackenbury rated it liked it
This book by William McNeil offers an interesting interpretation of the way that epidemic disease has shaped the course of world history from ancient times to the present day, a topic that the author asserts has been neglected in traditional historical accounts. The book is written in a charmingly old-fashioned style which is pleasant to read, although it is at times a bit tediously wordy and the citations are sparser than I would like.

Nevertheless, here is one passage from the Introduction that
Nov 18, 2012 Trista rated it it was ok
Shelves: airplane
This is what I call an "airplane book" as no one will bother you when you read it because its so alarming. Other great books on this genre (different authors) are "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach (much more readable, this author has a charming sense of humor) and the "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers" by Scott Carney (a very readable author, very much in tune and sympathetic to the subject at h ...more
Jan 14, 2009 Angie rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
Only a historian would know how to beat a dead horse to this extreme. Unfortunately, the redundancy in the first section was enough to kill the interesting this only if you have trouble sleeping or it's required reading for a school course.
Richard Reese
Mar 24, 2015 Richard Reese rated it it was amazing
Nobody comprehends the universe, because it is almost entirely out of sight. We also can’t see the universe of microorganisms here on Earth, or fully comprehend their powerful influence. Historian William McNeill learned that disease has played a major role in the human journey, and he wrote a fascinating introduction to our intimate companions, the parasites, in Plagues and Peoples.

All critters eat. Hosts provide food, and parasites consume it. Large-bodied parasites, like wolves, are macro-par
Jan 15, 2016 Katarina rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Academics, Historians
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with Plagues and Peoples. I had expected discussion of exactly what cultural ramifications disease epidemics have had throughout history. The movement of disease and the large-scale changes that forced upon populations throughout history was discussed in great detail, but the CULTURAL impact of all this was not the focus. Instead, McNeill took a very empirical, scientific view of history, and chose to look at it as a series of events and interactions between or ...more
May 30, 2014 GoldGato rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Civilized diseases. This is the book that first alerted me to the way some germs and viruses have altered human history, much as pigeons have become a part of our daily environment. As we have developed the previously virgin landscape of the world, we have unwittingly unleashed the microbes intent on destroying us. Tit-for-tat. Throw in the 'peoples' element, such as Roman legionnaires turning on their own communities or Mongols burning villages and their occupants into ashes, and one wonders wh ...more
Lee Drake
Feb 25, 2007 Lee Drake rated it it was amazing
Shelves: archaeology
This work seemlessly unites archaeology, history, and microbial biology by looking at how infectious diseases have caused our history. The deepest implications are reserved for our future, but the resolution of the past is brought into clarity as well. McNeil points to the sucess of Muhammed and Alexander the Great and argues that they owe more to diseases ravaging the conquered rather than the military prowess of the conquerer. Simple facts such as the density of cities and the rates of infecti ...more
Aug 31, 2015 Chuck rated it really liked it
"Plagues and Peoples" by William Hardy McNeill discusses the role of plagues in human history and experience. Many historic disasters and surprises can be associated with plagues. Lack of good medical understanding, medical terminology, and statistics prevent us from fully understanding how plagues affected much of human history. However, from anecdotal evidence MacNeill demonstrates that it likely had a significant effect in many cases.

MacNeill is particularly powerful when discusses why certai
Apr 08, 2015 Jenn rated it it was amazing
Detailed and thoughtful. I would've liked to see some of the theories expounded upon and expanded to include a more recent history of epidemics within the past forty years.
Erik Graff
Apr 27, 2013 Erik Graff rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: James Irwin
Shelves: history
This is an interdisciplinary work, an epidemiological history of humanity. For me, it represented an entirely new perspective whereby the political events emphasized in standard histories were radically relativized. Indeed, when one compares the devastations and distruptions caused by human agencies to that, say, of rats, the rodents have often come across as more influential than homo sapiens.
Sandra Strange
Jun 09, 2010 Sandra Strange rated it really liked it
If you think we control the world, think again. This book traces the influence of diseases on history. It's compelling reading. It's interesting that this is a part of history rarely studied, except for some mention of the Black Plague, in college classes, though again and again disease interrupts the plans and course of men.
Dec 08, 2015 Brandon rated it liked it
A solid and seminal work in the field of epidemiological History. McNeil explores the relationship between diseases and the course of human history. The book is broken into sections looking at different time periods and how disease impacts changed throughout history and informed historical outcomes. These include: prehistory, the black death and the mongols, the Columbian exchange, and the impact of modern medicine.

This book is perhaps the most important work in epidemiological history ever wri
Marvin Soroos
Normally I wouldn't be reading non-fiction published initially in 1976, especially on a topic that has continuing scientific breakthroughs. A recent recommendation caused me to check it out of the library and read it. This is a fascinating overview of the often unrecognized that diseases and plagues have had on human history over thousands of years and the evolution in the ways that human civilizations have tried to cope with them. There is perhaps more historical detail than necessary, and the ...more
Mar 18, 2015 David rated it it was amazing
This is wonderful book. It's a history of human epidemic disease from an ecological perspective, full of insights and surprises. What theme I particularly liked is his analogy between microparasitism ( microbes) and macroparasitism (tax collectors, armies, and bandits). Each of these tends to be in balance with the host population, because imposing too great a burden would destroy the system. All in all, one of the best start work best world-historical syntheses I have read.

Well worth your atte
Dennis Boccippio
By Goodreads' count, it's taken me 14 months to take this book off my half-read shelf and finish reading it, so don't expect a stellar review...

On the upside, those portions of the book which focus primarily on disease (less than you might think) and its corollary impacts on human history are fairly well done and thought-provoking; this is the case for the second half of the book (the Mongols, plague and forward). McNeill claims his intent is to earn disease a place alongside other factors in sh
Dec 18, 2014 Jenny rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Published in 1977, Plagues and Peoples seems an old, non-popularized Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. However, the scope of McNeill's book is, granted, much smaller than that of Diamond's, who purports to explain the trajectory of the human race. I found Plagues and Peoples in a used-book store, and was excited, upon reading it, to find how well it fit into my knowledge-base and interests. The basic premise is familiar from such authors as Diamond and the vehement pre-Columbian population ...more
Oct 21, 2010 Everhopeful rated it did not like it
In all honesty, I'm rather surprised to see this getting the number of good reviews that it has here! I'm reading it for a Cultural Geography class with the intent to critique it at the end of the semester. If there are additional over-blown words the author can find to make a single sentence more complicated and flowery, he certainly finds it! As for the research and support to his arguments, I'm on page 110 or so and so far he's thrown the FACT that this is based on guesswork far more than any ...more
May 07, 2014 Donna rated it really liked it
Shelves: treadmill-reads
Well worth the effort to read. Historian William McNeill's 1977 work preceded and probably served as a foundation for Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." While its focus is the effects of disease on human history, it does so in the context of ecological relations and in terms of both microparasitic and macroparasitic threats and effects. My personal reading of the past year has been heavily weighted by history and historical fiction. This book deepens my understanding of how the lives of in ...more
Feb 16, 2015 Samantha rated it liked it
Read this the first time for a medical history class and held on to my copy (that says something because I invariably sell back any school books I can) and have since read it a couple more times. I realize I may be abnormal in my love of medical stories, mysteries, and discoveries but I learned a lot about disease and its influence on the history of the world from McNeil.
Jan 07, 2016 Trenchologist rated it really liked it
Fascinating theory and history, could get heavy with technical jargon, and I found it redundant toward the end. But overall satisfying and the theories presented well stated and argued. History, archaeology, and microbiology blended together to present the forces by which civilizations are carved and conquered--and that's good stuff.
Steve Wiggins
Jun 09, 2014 Steve Wiggins rated it liked it
How does one really "like" a book about disease? In any case, this is an interesting study of how disease and humanity have interacted over the centuries. A bit scary, but good. Further comments may be read here: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.
Sep 03, 2015 Jim rated it it was amazing
An important book, from 1976. McNeill discusses the impact that infectious disease has had on human history. I'm sure some information needs to be updated and there isn't much on the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Of course, since this book was written, a lot more has been written on this subject, including the 1918-19 flu...
Feb 13, 2012 Dan rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
This was one of the most compelling books I have ever read. In particular, I admired the sourcing and the boldness of some of the claims; I much prefer scholars putting their necks out on the line with bold, properly caveated arguments, rather than seeing them retreat into timid, easier intellectual spaces. McNeil clearly prefers the former.

At the core of the book, McNeil argues that we should view humans as one species among many in the competition and struggle for survival, facing other macrop
Joe Iacovino
Oct 07, 2011 Joe Iacovino rated it really liked it
The information provided lays out some concepts that seem intuitive now, which made it all the more interesting when considering what happened in history to achieve this new thinking. The writing style has been noted by some as "flowery" or "verbose" (to them I'd say avoid Hawthorne) but I did not find such criticism warranted. The chapters are lengthy at 50-60 pgs each which isn't the style I prefer and there certainly is a lot of repetition in making his points. However, in the author's defens ...more
Deborah Anderson
Nov 03, 2014 Deborah Anderson rated it really liked it
This was an interesting book about the interplay between micro- and macro-parasitical entities and the effects on human populations beginning in prehistory and ending with the 20th century. Micro-parasites are considered to be diseases and illness, whether viruses or otherwise, and macro-parasites are governments, or rent-extracting entities etc. The assumptions and conclusions that McNeill came to seemed for the most part reasonable and interesting, though it was at times a dry and in places re ...more
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aka William William Hardy McNeill is a Canadian-American world historian and author, particularly noted for his writings on Western civilization. He is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago where he has taught since 1947.
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