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

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  7,042 ratings  ·  550 reviews
The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history, even more so now, when the notion of plague—be it animal or human—has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern

The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics t
Paperback, 400 pages
Published January 31st 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published August 14th 2005)
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 ·  7,042 ratings  ·  550 reviews

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Start your review of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time
Jan 01, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
aPriL does feral sometimes
After finishing ‘The Great Mortality’ by John Kelly, I am not certain what is more horrific - being sick with the Bubonic Plague, or daily life in the 14th century, especially in European cities.

Please note I am a modern person of the female gender. This means I like a daily hot shower, household cleansers utilized almost every day, flushable toilets connected to piping which whisk away invisibly whatever is in the bowl, toilet paper and my vacuum (with attachments). I highly appreciate fresh sm
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.
Dec 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites, 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",
Jill Hutchinson
Sep 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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
Nov 07, 2017 rated it liked it
Having read a couple of historical fiction novels with the Black Death aka the Great Mortality as the book’s backdrop, I picked this book up to read to understand this apocalyptic-like event. Between the years of 1346 and 1353, the Black Death creeped across Eurasia, initially along major trade routes and later inland, killing one-third of the area’s population.

I had to slog through the initial chapters that described the plague cause, Yersinia pestis and its vector, the rat flea, which were c
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
Actual rating about 3.5 stars.

Very interesting account. Kelly writes with verve, and tells some great stories, but has a couple of tics as a writer which annoyed me, the most prominent being personifying the plague as if it were a living, decision-making animal.

Kelly covers how it came to Europe (the chroniclers of the time universally blamed the Genoese), and tracks it scrupulously through Italy, France and England. Scandinavia gets barely a mention, as does Iberia (except for how it treated i
Caidyn (he/him/his)
This review can also be found on my blog!

CW: Jewish pogroms, anti-Semitism, and plague

Ah, the plague. The good old plague that decimated Europe’s population. And, apparently, I thought it was a good choice to read this during the most wonderful time of the year! (Actually, this was the book I’d read first thing in the morning with my coffee. I know. I have weird reading habits.)

I’ve always had a huge interest in this topic, ever since I was a child. And, yes, I know that I was a very weird child
Sep 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Many books have been written about the Black Death, but this one now jumps to the forefront of my little morbid collection. Written with an intriguing historical narrative that explains the state of politics and culture as Death swept into Europe circa 1348, this is an excellent volume to enhance one's curiosity about the 14th-century Plague.

"Oimmeddam" is a word from the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, roughly translated to "wandering sickness". The Black Death remains the most successf
A Compelling Melding of Science & History, with Lessons for Today

As I sit writing this review, the world is once again ravaged by disease (COVID-19) that is killing thousands around the globe and forcing millions of others to shelter in their homes and pray that this illness would pass over them. So, to say that reading this book about the Black Death, the plague that ravaged Europe
in the middle of the fourteenth century, is timely would be an understatement. The past can be both teacher and gu
Oct 23, 2017 rated it it was ok
I so wanted to like this book. I thought at first my brain was not operating right. Then I kept reading anyway. As an amateur historian, I am sorry to say that Kelly has written ambitious book and thst perhaps the task was too ambitious. The book is poorly organized. I wanted the major rivers of Europe included on the map as the major cities which experienced the plague. I wanted more information about the 3 plagues. I know the first two and know of the 3rd in passing. An Appendix would have giv ...more
Emma Sea
Topic = 5
Writing = 2

Susan in NC
Jun 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very evocative, well-researched look at the movement of the Black Plague throughout Europe in the 14th century.

I read this book for a Book For All Seasons group challenge to read a book about a pandemic, and this seemed like a good choice, as the 1918 flu pandemic was already covered by another member! Kelly’s Afterword was very relatable, as he says it became depressing to research and write about death on such a large scale — and with many states, including mine, cautiously peeking our noses
John Lamb
Apr 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
When this quarantine ends, I really am going to be insufferable around people as I drop little bits of trivia from books like this. Did you know that people used to inhale the air at pit toilets because they thought it would build immunity? Did you know that in The Decameron people went partying during the plague just like the spring breakers in Florida? Did you know that medieval people burned Jews alive because they thought they were the cause of the plague? I apologize to the recipients of my ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
It is known by many names but the Great Mortality of the 14th century (also often referred to as The Black Death) was supposed to be the second pandemic of recorded history, the first one being the Plague of Justinian which ravaged the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in 541-542 AD, and the third one that of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. Of course, the present one is not in this book since it was published in 2005 and it contains a very hopeful dedication which reads:

Trigger warnings: pandemic, death, animal death, death of a child, graphic descriptions of wounds and medical procedures, mentions of rape.

3.5 stars.

Look, I read this two and a half weeks and 20 books ago so my thoughts at this point are a little vague. It was definitely interesting and informative. But because it's more of a "here's what happened in France, here's what happened in Germany, here's what happened in Britain" style of telling the story rather than a strict chronological progressio
May 11, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book is the literary equivalent of a painting of a pile of corpses done by Lisa Frank. John Kelly works super hard to be whimsical and cutesy, and unfortunately, he succeeds far too often. As a result, his book is frequently downright silly and embarrassing.

I cringed as Kelly repeatedly anthropomorphizes both Y. pestis and the plague it caused, as in "Descending through the straits, Y. pestis stopped to pay its respects to Xerxes, the Persian king who built a bridge of boats to ferry his ar
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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
Sep 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
Kaethe Douglas
Jul 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
We all (me, the Spouse, my mom, my mom-in-law) love well-written non-fiction about plague.

That's probably the most revealing sentence I've ever written.

Anyway, this is a very engaging, entertaining even, read. Kelly covers the known and the possible, such as, maybe it wasn't bubonic plague, maybe it was something else like anthrax or Ebola. Its the sort of book that gives you an insight into how history and science work, which alone makes it valuable reading.
Oct 11, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
This author wrote that Xerxes was a "Greek king."
Randall Wallace
Apr 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
You were an unusual European if, during the Middle Ages, you “washed or changed your clothes more than once or twice a year.” “Edward III scandalized London when he bathed three times in as many months.” “When the assassinated Thomas a Becket was stripped naked, an English chronicler reported that vermin ‘boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron’ from his body.” The plague was caused by Yersinia pestis which couldn’t survive long on tables, chairs and floors. “The greatest urban polluter w ...more
Probably closer to two stars but let’s creep back to the beginning or, even better, before that. A number of years ago I read Philip Ziegler’s Black Death. I may have picked it up in Cincinnati? I’m not sure. I read it quickly and found it an adequate introduction to the historical calamity which swept across the steppe to engulf Europe. The book didn’t cite original sources but was sage enough to echo previous generations without much controversy. Subsequently two students over the years since ...more
Jennifer (aka EM)
Jul 17, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Doreen Petersen
Nov 07, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, medical
This was a good book however I would have liked to have had more info on the everyday social impact of the disease.
Sep 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
3.5 Star

A relatively succint and comprehensive review of the Black Death. The author tries to depict the lives of several figures at various places during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Chronologically, the author tries to provide a brief overview of the origins of the plague, illustrate how the plague jumped from animals into humans as well as depict how the devastation follows the established trade routes in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, the author's strategy to dep
Aug 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the worl ...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.” 8 likes
“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the fat, buried my wife and five children with my own hands.”   The” 2 likes
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