I mentioned some of my problems with this book in an earlier post. Kelly wanders around and circles back a great deal, and he has a tendency to create his own scenarios that are strictly imaginative.
An early example of this occurs when Kelly creates a story to go with a headstone from 1339 that commemorates the death of a husband and wife, Kutluk and Magnu-Kelta. Kelly takes the brief inscription on the headstone and extrapolates:
On that first day he felt lightheaded and nauseous, symptoms so unobtrusive Magnu-Kelka did not even realize her husband was ill until dinner, when Kutluk suddenly vomited into his meal. On the second day of his illness, Kutluk awoke with a terrible pain in his groin; overnight, a hard, apple-sized lump had formed between his navel and his penis. That afternoon when Magnu Kelka probed the tumor with a finger, the pain was so terrible....
You get the idea. It goes on for two extremely detailed paragraphs of conjecture about the awful deaths the two experienced. The importance of Kutluk and Magnu-Kelka whose headstone inspired this conjecture is real. They were among the first victims of the particularly virulent form of the plague that circled the known world during the mid 1300's. I just found Kelly's eagerness to "novelize" annoying.
An especially interesting portion of the book, however, was the evidence of the strange and unusual environmental and ecological changes and events that frequently preceded outbreaks of the plague. Earthquakes, unprecedented rains, drought, tropical cyclones, and other climactic changes can influence rodent populations and locations. These events can also cause famine among human populations, weakening their resistance to disease.
Also interesting were the routes of the Genoese plague ships that visited harbor after harbor spreading the plague. Such an efficient way to spread the disease by sea, although the plague was soon moving overland as well.
My favorite aspect of the book, however, was the inclusion of so many first-hand accounts. Records from the cities overwhelmed by the plague, both personal and those of public record, are fascinating, distressing, and touching.
The Great Mortality has a great deal of information about the plague, fascinating depictions of medieval society, shocking estimates concerning the number of deaths in various areas, records of frantic efforts by governments and individuals to prevent and contain the disease, and accounts of the murderous pogroms against the Jews.
While I can wish that the book had been presented in a more straight-forward manner, it was educational and engrossing.
*Another detail that I found interesting is that when the plague arrived in Poland in 1349, King Casimir offered asylum to Jews fleeing from persecution and genocide. He was influenced by his Jewish mistress, Esther. Interesting Biblical connection of two brave Jewish women influencing kings.
Other reviews: Of Books & Bicycles
Nonfiction. History. 2005. 303 pages + notes.