Sara's Reviews > The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

The Great Mortality by John   Kelly
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May 18, 12

bookshelves: asian-history, islamic-history, medieval-history, mongolian-history, science-and-nature
Read from April 24 to May 09, 2012

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 occasionally even footnotes to give you a vivid portrait of the time period and its people. Kelly's position as a non-academic writer has also allowed him the freedom and, I would hypothesize, the intellectual breadth to attend source material outside of a narrow scholastic expertise. Most works I have ever read on the Black Death were written by medieval historians.* At the point the topic touches on Asian history, epidemiology or biology, the sources become fewer, the analyses simpler.

Kelly, too, focuses on the epidemic's effects on medieval Europe, but to get there he begins on the steppes of central Asia and with the differences between Mongolian marmot fleas and human fleas and moves on to the hows and the whys of Yersinia pestis' effects on fleas, rodents and humans. He painstakingly charts the disease's movements from Asia, into and then across Europe. He spends a lot of time considering the competing hypotheses regarding why historical descriptions of the Black Death do not always concur with modern observations of the plague. He consults such diverse sources as Boccaccio's Decameron, letters of Petrarch, articles from Current Topics in Microbiology and the World War II research of General Shiro Ishii, Japan's army commander to their biological warfare unit.

According to the Foster Scale (the Richter Scale of death and human suffering) the Great Mortality is the second largest catastrophe in recorded history. That places it behind World War II, which arrives in first place, and ahead of World War I, which falls third. The Foster Scale accounts for more than just numbers of dead; it seeks to quantify human stress resulting from the event it measures.

. . . .

It is entirely appropriate that throughout his book Kelly uses war and hunting terminology to describe the Great Mortality. He clearly pictures Y. pestis as a prowling predator, an enemy on the offensive. He practically personifies the bacterium, endowing it figuratively with will and a desire to kill, even a glee in doing so. He writes:

"[T]he plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, swallowed Eurasia the way a snake swallows a rabbit - whole, virtually in one sitting." (11)

. . . .

What John Kelly does better than most historians is make it easy to imagine yourself there. He evokes the sights, smells and sounds of plague-beset Europe and its people; their fears, foibles, prejudices, affections and strengths. He represents them in their diversity, such as it was, and focuses on the small details to enlighten the big picture. The Great Mortality is a thoroughly engaging, highly educational read. More than that, it is definitely a cautionary tale. Kelly began his research believing he would write about the future potential of pandemic disease to devastate our modern world. He first looked to the past to understand the future and, through his research, soon became completely taken with and engaged by the voices and lives of medieval people, so much so that his work became a book about the Black Death. His is a successful history because through it he has conjured the past and made it speak to our present vividly, heartrendingly, relevantly. Good history does this, exercises our empathy, that transformational and mind-expanding emotion of which our world has never had enough.

*I think, specifically and with much respect, of works by Norman Cantor, Philip Ziegler, Robert Gottfried and David Herlihy.
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