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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Great Mortality

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

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.


  1. That's too bad. Judging by the topic, it could have been so good if done better. It sounds like it still has its qualities, though.

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  3. That sounds like a really interesting book. I can understand why the author's intervention with a touch of fiction would annoy you. That tends to bug me, too.

    Apologies for the removed comment. I didn't preview and I hate typos, so I removed and fixed.

  4. I just watched a show on tv the other night about how the weather affects outbreaks of disease. The case they were looking at was in Mexico during the Aztec reign. It was very interesting. It sounds very much like what you describe here.

  5. Nymeth - It was certainly worth reading and was very informative. I suppose the flaws are relatively minor. :)

    bookfool - It never fails to amaze me that so many people died so quickly. None of the following outbreaks were nearly as virulent, but they, too, were devastating.

    Lisa - What the population sometimes considered portents and omens were really events that made it easier for disease to flourish. a way, the "signs" were relevant. I think the Aztec corollary would be interesting to research.

  6. I agree with your praise and critique of the book -- it had some organizational problems, but I thought the information it offered made the problems worth it. The discussion of weather was certainly interesting -- I had no idea weather disasters could contribute to an outbreak of disease.

  7. Dorothy - Yes, in spite of my picking at flaws, I'm certainly glad I read it!