Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Great Mortality

 Described on the cover as 'An Intimate History of the Black Death' (a name which, interestingly, was never used by contemporaries and arose from a mistranslation), this is a charming introduction to a fascinating and gory topic that can actually justify the numerous hymns of praise plastered across the back.

The Great Mortality focuses on the progress of the Black Death across Europe from its beginning in Russia, describing both the probable causes of the contagion and its effects on the population. Interwoven are the histories of the places plague visited, the events preceding the plague - such as the Great Famine -  and the history of Yersinia Pestis itself, including its discovery and its appearances before and after the Black Death.

The book is not without imperfections. There were worrying discrepancies between the book's account of how the plague bacillus was identified and other accounts I have read - though, to be fair, there is no reason to assume they were more reliable. Editorial mistakes are more common than they should be (epitaph is, in one entertaining incident, confused with epithet) and the final chapter - which deals with 'plague deniers' (those who think the Black Death was not caused by Yersinia Pestis) - feels like it needs more work, and has employed some circular arguments.

On the other hand, The Great Mortality has the great merit of being immensely readable. The writing style is beautifully clear, while the interspersion of anecdotes - for example, the Sienan merchant who lost his wife and five sons to plague - really impresses upon the reader the tragedy the epidemic brought, and the addition of contemporary events to the book, like the trial of Johanna of Naples for the murder of her husband, allows the reader to imagine the outbreak in context. Overall, the book is an immensely entertaining introduction to the Black Death, and worth recommending.


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