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on 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 We are better off with the classic works of Zinsser, Shrewsbury, Twigg, and Cipolla--they're out of date, but better out of date than rhetorically exaggerating and noncredible.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.