26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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.
28 of 38 people found the following review helpful
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.