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Plagues and Peoples

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  3,507 ratings  ·  153 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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3.90  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,507 ratings  ·  153 reviews

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Aug 01, 2009 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
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 There's also some outdated concepts within his a
Aug 03, 2009 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).

Nov 18, 2012 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
Linus Williams
Oct 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
McNeill in this seminal volume offers a very interesting and informative overview of the past interactions and continuing interactions between so-called "macroparasitism"--that is, predation of man upon man--and "microparasitism"--the relation between tribes or nations of men and the organisms in their microenvironment. This may be one of the first books to systematically examine the equilibrium that develops over time as diseases adapt to hosts, and how that microparasitic equilibrium can be di ...more
Richard Reese
Mar 24, 2015 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
This book is a really important one, but it's been so foundational that this piece has been eclipsed by numerous others. McNeill's primary contribution is centering disease as a subject of historical analysis. Before this work, little thought had been given to disease's role in world history. Clearly, disease was pervasive and affected everybody on earth, but nobody gave thought to the impact disease had on historical processes themselves. Now, there are numerous works that look at disease in a ...more
Lauren Bedson
Jan 02, 2014 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
Dec 26, 2008 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.
James Shomething
Aug 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book, a fresh and wide-ranging look at the links between disease and history, is full of startling and dramatic connections and almost seems designed to provoke. To take one example out of many, McNeill blames the rise of Christianity and the Fall of Rome on plague. He realizes, of course, that the majority of such sweeping generalizations are mere speculation, and indeed he writes at one point that it is only through the dialectic that radical arguments provoke that new historical insight ...more
Xan Shadowflutter
Nov 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Originally published in the mid 1970s, this may be the first history book to focus on the effects of disease on human civilizations. Beginning with the start of recorded history and continuing into the 20th century, McNeil traces various plagues and their consequences to human populations. Empires have risen and fallen to plagues. McNeil leaves no corner of the globe untouched: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand are all covered.

It is this book that properly restor
Jan 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
While the book's subject matter is fairly interesting, McNeill has a tendency to repeat himself and uses language that can only kindly be described as verbose.

One notices that the tone of the text is quite long-winded and repetitive.
A few paragraphs in and you begin to perceive a discourse, of sorts, that is familiar, the reader having read a similar statement earlier in the text, and whose verbage is unnecessarily convoluted.

Catch my drift? Try 300 Pages of that.
Sense of  History
What can you do when you want to study a certain aspect of human history, and almost no-one before you has looked into the issue before? What can you do when the sources that could enlighten you on this issue, are lacking, or are only available for a relatively recent time periode? That is the challenge William H. McNeill saw himself up to when he started this study on plagues and peoples.
In his introduction he’s very honest about this: “Many of my suggestions and inferences remain tentative
Oct 28, 2011 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
Aug 07, 2012 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
Alex Zakharov
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Written back in ’76 the view expressed in the book is only more pertinent today when we have no dearth of theories explaining macro-level human state development and history (J. Diamond, I. Morris, F. Fukuyama, D. Landes, D.Acemoglue, J. Henrich). McNeill asserts that for most of history human intelligence was completely blind when it came to microbiology and as a result to this day we underestimate the effects that pathogens have had on development of human societies. His sets out to correct th ...more
Lee Drake
Feb 25, 2007 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
Sandra Strange
Jun 09, 2010 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.
Erik Graff
Jan 04, 2010 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.
Apr 08, 2015 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.
This is an interesting and somewhat scholarly look at how people and diseases have interacted and evolved together over time, from "man the hunter" to "the ecological impact of medical science and organization since 1700". McNeil examines macroparisitic and microparisitic effects on the growth of civilizations, focusing primarily on diseases and how epidemics have effected world history, the course of civilization and human evolution.

I found the sections where the author discusses the "living co
Oct 20, 2017 rated it liked it
"Plagues and Peoples" is a classic and a pioneering study at the same time. A classic, because McNeill draws from his rich knowledge of world history and looks at the problem of diseases and epidemics from a global point of view, with which he was several decades ahead of the recent World/Global History-movement. A pioneering study because this book is full of hypotheses and guesses. McNeill has no problem to acknowledge this, simply because before him (this book was published in 1976) hardly an ...more
Tim Martin
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, reviewed, science
_Plagues and Peoples_ by William H. McNeill is an absolutely brilliant work of history; though originally published in 1977 it is still insightful and influential. Just as Brian Fagan in _The Long Summer_ viewed human history through the prism of climatic change, McNeill in this work showed how the world got to be the way it is in large part thanks to disease. How the various communities of humans in the world came to an accommodation with those infectious diseases that were able to reach epidem ...more
Apr 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Although this book is somewhat dated (updated and republished in 1989), it is a thought-provoking look at how diseases may have changed the course of history. For example, did a country win a war based on superior military might, or because it's opponent was decimated by disease?

It is an interesting look at how different circumstances create the outcomes that have brought us to our present situation, and may make the reader reflect on just how lucky he or she is to have had the "right" genetic m
Apr 24, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: never-read-again
When I bought this book I made the mistake of not checking the publication dates. That was a mistake. This book was first published in 1977 and the information in it is very dated. There have been more recent books that cover roughly the same topic that have far better information in it.

Another aspect of this book that got on my nerves is the author making these inferences without providing enough proof to back up his ideas. This book is mostly guess work and speculation. I don't disagree with t
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A history of the interaction of human history and disease, from ancient times to the present (i.e. the mid 1970's). Fascinating study of how epidemics have affected the course of history, including how diseases spread between Europe and Africa to the Americas after 1492. But earlier conquests also had medical consequences too, for example the Mongol conquest of much of Asia in the 13th century, which perhaps facilitated the spread of the bubonic plague (the Black Death) in the 14th century. The ...more
Petr Hanak
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The book is full of interesting facts about the impact of diseases and parasites on the development of human society. Some of the revelations are striking but plausible. Never before have I realized how dangerous life was before the wide spread of Western science in 18th century. And yet, science aside, we owe most to our ancestors who were dying in scores and allowed us to develop better immunity against most common diseases.
Aviva Rosman
Oct 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
To really understand history, everyone should read this book. It will completely change the way you look at history - it's incredible to me that I studied history through high school and college, and never really thought about measles, small pox, yellow fever, and their role in history. McNeill is a master at connecting disparate parts of history - from the black plague to changes in roofing to the expulsion of the Jews. Plus, this book is just a lot of fun to read.
Nov 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
I suppose one of the reasons for the low rating is four decades between it’s publication and when I read it. It was simply outdated. Now I admit, it’s my fault for not checking the year it was written (and reading Guns, Germs, and Steel first) but I can’t separate myself from that. Another qualm I had with the book was that McNeill is guilty (in the first degree) of circumlocution. This should have been a 150-200 pager.
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If we know each other well, I've probably recommended this book to you. It's one of my staples. Examines human history from the perspective of epidemiology, discussing how disease has shaped our societies. It's imperfect, and some of the science discussed is outdated now, but it's still a must-read.
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History, Medicine...: Plagues and Peoples 2 32 Oct 25, 2012 05:42AM  
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  • Plague's Progress: A Social History of Man and Disease
  • Viruses, Plagues and History
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  • Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
  • The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox
  • America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918
  • The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History
  • The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850
  • The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time
  • The Black Death: Natural and Human Disater in Medieval Europe
  • The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera
  • Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
  • Virus X
  • Pox: Genius, Madness, And The Mysteries Of Syphilis
aka William William Hardy McNeill is a Canadian-American world historian and author, particularly noted for his writings on Western civilization. He was Professor and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago where he taught from 1947 to his death.