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Plagues and Peoples Paperback – October 11, 1977

ISBN-13: 978-0385121224 ISBN-10: 0385121229 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews Review

No small themes for historian William McNeill: he is a writer of big, sweeping books, from The Rise of the West to The History of the World. Plagues and Peoples considers the influence of infectious diseases on the course of history, and McNeill pays special attention to the Black Death of the 13th and 14th centuries, which killed millions across Europe and Asia. (At one point, writes McNeill, 10,000 people in Constantinople alone were dying each day from the plague.) With the new crop of plagues and epidemics in our own time, McNeill's quiet assertion that "in any effort to understand what lies ahead the role of infectious disease cannot properly be left out of consideration" takes on new significance.

From the Publisher

McNeill's highly acclaimed work is a brilliant and challenging account of the effects of disease on human history. His sophisticated analysis and detailed grasp of the subject make this book fascinating reading. By the author of The Rise Of The West.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1st edition (1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385121229
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385121224
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,303 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

McNeill's landmark book describes the impact of diseases on human history.
Scott Cromar
William H. McNeill's book "Plagues and Peoples" provides a thorough and original look at how epidemic diseases have shaped the course of human history.
If you read "Plagues and Peoples" with this thesis in mind, it is a very interesting book.
Sammy Madison

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Gerry Fahrenthold on January 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
Plagues and Peoples is an informative and very readable summary of the relationship between mankind and disease. The author consistently views disease as a parasite and describes the history of plagues in terms of a parasite interacting with a host population. The parasite and the host interact and, over time, reach an equilibrium within the population that allows the both the parasite and the host to survive.
The most interesting feature of the book is his portrayal of mankind not only as a host, but also as a parasite himself. He uses the term macroparasite to describe human institutions and phenomena that also drain energy and resources from producers. For example, very high taxes or rents, Medieval labor laws and practices, war, and forced migration all drain communities and nations as surely as disease. He provides excellent, while still brief, commentary on the interaction between microparasites and macroparasites and the resultant depopulation of certain areas during certain periods. One might argue that this is not a newly observed correlation, but it has certainly never been explained as clearly and succintly as it is done here.
McNeill covers a range of topics. There is, of course, discussion of the plague and mankinds response to it. There us also commentary on leprosy. Why for example, was leprosy, so common in Western Europe and the Middle East in biblical times, to dissapear in the Middle Ages. ( The answer is not what you think. ) Did syphillis originate in the Americas ? If so it may have been the Aztecs' revenge on the conquistadors. Why are there childhood diseases ?
McNeill's arguements are somtimes intuitive and are, in some cases, based on limited data, especially when he examines the history of disease in Asia and India.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 15, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is one of those handful of books that will change the way you look at our world. History will never seem quite the same when you finish.
Several earlier reviewers have done a great job of summarizing and analyzing the book. It is unfortunate that this book was given as a high school assignment, and then the students were asked to review it on Amazon. Is it any wonder they gave it 2 or 3 stars, and said it was difficult to understand? Most 15-year-olds do not have the background to fully appreciate this type of work, and unfortunately their reviews skew the book's rating.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Williams on June 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
History can be written from two major vantage points. From the top of a mountain, with broad brush strokes, showing the major streams and landmarks, the BIG picture. Spenser and Toynbee are such historians, so is this book. The other view is from the trenches, the pieces, the small connections that we find so fascinating and absorbing. I believe that the big picture view of this book is a result of how it came into being as an elaboration of a single constellation of ideas that the author discovered while working on _The Rise of the West_, he found they interesting and continued to build the structure around these ideas in this book.
The book is about a collection of related ideas:
Parasitism--as he defines two types macro and micro.
Micro is the form we are familiar with as disease, the times viruses, bacteria, protozoan begin to use us as their energy and food source, to our consternation. He further defines two flavors: epidemic and endemic. Epidemic is the form in bubonic plague that swept Europe for 500 years at regular intervals. endemic is the idea of a parasitic form like the liver flukes that effect irrigated agriculture the world over, or like the civilized childhood diseases that effect the body politic like measles, mumps, smallpox.
Macroparasitism is this author's contribution to the discussion, unique to him as far as i know. Those other human's that prey on the weaker, less organized, less mobile etc. Epidemic macro are the Mongols(which are the topic of what i think is the best chapter in the book) or those horseman like in the movie the "Seventh Samari" who sweep out of the steppes or mountains to seize the harvest.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By on April 16, 1998
Format: Paperback
If you've been enjoying the rash of viral/epidemiological titles such as "Hot Zone", "The Coming Plague" or "Deadly Feasts", you'll find a real gem in "Plagues and Peoples". William McNeill, an author with impeccable credentials, is IMHO, the Marshall McCluhan of epidemiological biology. Like McCluhan, he published this work decades before the subject matter became mainstream. He also comes at the topics he investigates with a fresh and brain-stretching approach.
McNeill presents a history of mankind where every civilization is surrounded by a disease 'gradient'. These gradients interact with one another as one of the significant factors in inter-cultural dominance and expansion. The conquest of the New World takes on a new look as McNeill describes the impact of the European disease gradient on a defenseless North America. He contrasts this with the impact of the African disease gradient on Europeans.
Some of McNeills ideas, such as his analogies between micro-parasites (diseases, bugs, etc.) and macro-parasites (governments, barbarians, raiders, etc.) are still fresh and fascinating. Consider his idea that we accept a government as a low-level parasite so that we minimize the impact of rogue parasites like raiders and such in the same way we allow our bodies to be colonized by benign parasites like E.Coli so that we have fewer niches available to rouge germs like staph and strep. This book is filled with exciting ideas like this.
All in all, the book is very readable, adds greatly to any view of history and creates an excellent foundation for the recent titles in this area.
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