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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 ·  5,946 ratings  ·  442 reviews
La moria grandissima began its terrible journey across the European and Asian continents in 1347, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake. Five years later, twenty-five million people were dead, felled by the scourge that would come to be called the Black Death. The Great Mortality is the extraordinary epic account of the worst natural disaster in European history -- ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published January 31st 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published January 1st 2005)
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3.87  · 
Rating details
 ·  5,946 ratings  ·  442 reviews

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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
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.
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
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
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 (SEMI-HIATUS; BW Reviews; 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
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
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
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
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.
Oct 11, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
This author wrote that Xerxes was a "Greek king."
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
Virginia Messina
Jan 01, 2011 rated it liked it
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
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.
Emma Sea
Topic = 5
Writing = 2

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
Bob Schnell
Jan 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: misc
To anyone interested in the Black Death this is certainly the book for you. I read a few chapters of this for a class and decided to read the whole book cause why not lol. This book really puts into perspective just how devastating the the Black Death was in Europe, and around the world. John Kelly goes through historical documents, and other historians research on how the disease spread from town to town plus all the reasons on what made this particular outbreak of plague so devastating. I cann ...more
Jul 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I’ve never read anything about the Black Death where the victims were described with such humanity. Kelly describes the onset, height and conclusion of this particular plague in such great and accessible detail. I would definitely recommend this to my friends if they were interested in learning more about the plague.
Dec 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Who could imagine that an ugly, awful way to die could keep you turning pages faster and faster. What a way to go! Plus, I learned so much about this period of history - yet it isn't a boring, history lesson.
E.M. Powell
Apr 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Feb 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 29, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Evan Leach
Feb 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book took me MONTHS to get through, but mostly because nonfiction reading is dense.
But it's really good! It's a nice comprehensive look at the Black Death, how it swept from region to region, and also the religion and politics that played into the world's response of the plague.

Also that cover is FANTASTIC.
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
for a nonfiction writer, kelly sure does write some imaginative prose. he personifies the plague a lot, to the point where it can almost be confusing. does the plague really rest and then go on well-rested and revitalized to kill more in the next town? I didn't find him to be a particularly poetic writer, but he tried. he did achieve "chilling" fairly often, however.

so, the book wasn't dry. which, it was basically a chronological account of the black death's journey through europe, town by town
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Madison Mega-Mara...: The Great Mortality 1 3 Mar 20, 2013 06:48AM  
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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.
“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.” 6 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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