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on December 26, 2005
Please rethink your conclusions about this work. The authors whom you prefer have been shown to have used poor research methods and were at the further disadvantage (in the 1980s)of not having access to the DNA in the dental pulp extracted from known plague victims from both the second and third pandemics of plague. The pathogens causing modern diseases may actually be less "fragile" or likely to have acquired gene sequences from coexisting microbes than those of the Middle Ages, and yet we are certainly seeing rapid and unpredictable mutations in potentially lethal modern pathogens (H5N1) which may be the cause of the next pandemic. The Black Death no doubt owes some of its extreme lethality to its mutations within short spans of time and geography. The role of the HUMAN flea (P. irritans) and the common body louse, with which medieval person was rife, may have been more effective vectors of transmission than we might expect with our modern experiences with them. In fact, the human flea (not the rat flea) was further altered in its ability to tranfer the pathogen into the human bloodstream by the time of the 19th century plague episode. Conditions in Europe at the time of the 14th c.Black Death were more conducive to the human to human transmission of plague, no doubt, at least in its pneumonic form. As we see modern diseases mutate, so must the early Y. Pestis have mutated into extreme lethality. I suggest you read the conclusions of Michel Drancourt and Didier Raoult and their work on the extraction of Y. pestis DNA from the dental pulp of known plague victims. Your skepticism about Y. pestis may be put to rest. Yersinia pestis was the cause of the medieval plague, even if other diseases were active contemporaries! John Kelly also has a very cogent argument as to how the deadly disease gained a foothold in first the Asian Steppe and rapidly spread across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, even Greenland.
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VINE VOICEon December 25, 2006
Possibly I can inject a moderate voice into the rather polarized reviews so far. Benedictow certainly demonstrates, and so have many others, that bubonic plague was involved and could spread faster than we thought. On the other hand, he overgeneralizes local extreme kill rates, and he writes as if no other diseases were involved in the great death peak of 1346-1353. This would mean that all the other diseases that constantly afflicted medieval Europe somehow took a holiday! In fact, we have known since at least Han Zinsser's RATS, LICE AND HISTORY in 1937, to say nothing of the more up-to-date, careful work of Graham Twigg, that other diseases must have taken full advantage of the opportunity caused by social breakdown. And, as Benedictow says, that breakdown caused many to die of sheer starvation and lack of care. Infants who lost parents almost always died, sick or no. We must assume that _Yersinia pestis_ killed only some of the many victims.

We can, however, assume it killed far more than it would in modern India or Africa, because in most of Europe it was a virgin-soil epidemic. People had no evolved or acquired immunity. They were sitting ducks. As to its being there: As Eliz B notes in her review, plenty of plague DNA has been found in the victims, quite apart from perfectly sober and convincing contemporary accounts, which DO include plenty of notes on dying rats.

I have to say, I am annoyed by modern "scholarship" on the plague. There is some good work (David Herlihy, etc.), but too many people take undefensible, extreme positions--maintaining that it was all plague, or that no plague was involved at all. One recent book even proposes an Ebola-like virus, in spite of the obvious fact that Ebola puts itself out of business by killing or immunizing everyone in a village it strikes. We are better off with the classic works of Zinsser, Shrewsbury, Twigg, and Cipolla--they're out of date, but better out of date than rhetorically exaggerating and noncredible. I wish that more historians, with fewer axes to grind, would look at this epidemic.
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VINE VOICEon November 30, 2015
Based on the polemic reviews h ere (and my own piqued interest), I finally had time to read Benedictow's work. While there is much that I liked, as some reviews have earlier mentioned, the book is not without its problems. The first (and greatest) is the lack of citation of sources. For an academic (Benedictow is a professor of history at the University of Oslo), I was both surprised and disappointed.

However, I was impressed with two aspects of his methodology. The first was his clear and detailed explanation of the method of transmission of Y. pestis (from fleas that prefer rats to opportunistic feeding on humans) and, based on this, he establishment of a timeline by which the plague spreads (from time of initial arrival to the time of the first recorded deaths). Having established this, Benedictow goes on to trace the spread and the approximate arrival time of the disease across North African and Western Europe.

The majority of the book is a "nation" (I use quotation marks here, because in many cases there was no nation state - as in the case of Italy, Switzerland and Germany) by nation examination of the inferred routes the plague took, and the timelines Benedictow establishes for its arrival and eventual departure (having infected the population, the fleas looking for fresh hosts of having burned itself out.)

As previous reviewers have noted, the data tables used in the last quarter of the book (discussing mortality rates) is flawed, as the consideration of other causes of mortality are not even considered or addressed in his quantitative analysis - again, I expect more from a professional scholar. On the other hand, I was impressed with his analysis of the rate of exposure and infection in cities relative to the countryside. (His reasoning summarized thusly: cities have more rats than the countryside, therefore the time by which infected fleas begin to bit humans is longer, even after the disease reaches urban centers; likewise, the disease tends to remain in cities longer than in the countryside because there are a greater number of human hosts to feed on.)

I therefore have strongly mixed thoughts about the book: the epidemiological models and the explanation of the spread of the disease (and the estimated rate of its spread) was excellent; however, the lack of citation of sources and the quantitative generalizations are a serious flaw. For the general reader, I recommend John Kelly's _The Great Mortality_.
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on December 9, 2005
I am a research scientist and I have given much study to the nature of the Black Death and its recurring epidemics through the late 17th Century. After reading this book I am left with several pages of criticisms I have noted as I progressed from chapter to chapter. On innumerable instances very firm statements of fact are made regarding any number of subjects and absolutely no sources are provided. In some instances, even when referring to advanced concepts such as evolution of host:parasite interactions over time this is explained as common knowledge ("It was well known that...") with zero sources provided. Within the past 20 years a sizeable body of highly compelling research into the true identity of the causative agent of the Black Death has been conducted. Any serious student of the Black Death, microbiology/bacteriology, epidemiology or medieval history is doing themselves a disservice if they fail to examine at least one publication from this body of research. These include "Biology of Plagues" and "Return of the Black Death" by Susan Scott & Christopher Duncan; "The Black Death: a Biological Reappraisal" by Graham Twigg; "The Black Death Transformed" by Samuel K. Cohn; and "The Black Death and the Transformation of the West" by David Herlihy. The book reviewed here was published in 2004 and it takes the position that Yersinia pestis was the causative agent of the Black Death. Although this theory is certainly not new and has been advanced countless times before, this book fails to address the large body of evidence that counters this theory. While this is an understandable shortcoming of publications from over twenty years ago, it is not unreasonable to expect a current publication on the subject to at the very least acknowledge the existence of such evidence. To further strengthen the argument for Y. pestis, when contemporary sources describing the Black Death make assertions that are irreconcilable with modern data regarding Y. pestis the original sources are explained away as exaggerations and "tall tales". This book had great potential to address poorly studied aspects of the Black Death. Unfortunately, the poor documentation of sources and one-sided approach to data analysis of this book casts a shadow over its data and its conclusions.
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on May 5, 2016
Super interesting but a bit dry. One must realize going in that this book is not a work of fiction but rather a scientifically researched analysis of the plague catastrophe and its effect on Europe. The plague held far reaching implications for every aspect of European society and changed history significantly. Although the plague seems to be a fairly esoteric subject it has actually affected us all in one way or another. Perhaps that is the reason I find the entire subject endlessly fascinating.
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on February 21, 2009
There are so many 'complete' stories of the black death.

I am sure this one is just as compelling.
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