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The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe [Paperback]

Robert S. Gottfried
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 1, 1985 0029123704 978-0029123706
A fascinating work of detective history, The Black Death traces the causes and far-reaching consequences of this infamous outbreak of plague that spread across the continent of Europe from 1347 to 1351. Drawing on sources as diverse as monastic manuscripts and dendrochronological studies (which measure growth rings in trees), historian Robert S. Gottfried demonstrates how a bacillus transmitted by rat fleas brought on an ecological reign of terror -- killing one European in three, wiping out entire villages and towns, and rocking the foundation of medieval society and civilization.

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The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe + The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S.)
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Editorial Reviews


New York Times Book Review An engrossing study...Gottfried leaves us with a better understanding of how humans turned out to be at the mercy of changes in insect and rodent ecology.

The Atlantic Monthly Intriguing [description of] the social and economic effects of the plague, particularly its impact on the medical profession...Professor Gottfried describes the process in brisk and stimulating style.

William H. McNeill New York Review of Books Marks a distinct intellectual advance...a powerful reminder of how drastically ecological balances can be upset...

New England Journal of Medicine The epidemiology of plague and its introduction into Europe, the details of its devastation of various regions, and the economic consequences of the pandemic...represents the scholarly consensus and is well told.

The Boston Globe Book Review Gottfried's own historical expertise serves him well in describing the broad tears, temporary patches, and eventual retailoring of the fabric of medieval life...Gottfried's examination of the Black Death can help us to understand ourselves as well as our darkest past.

About the Author

Robert S. Gottfried is Professor of History and Director of Medieval Studies at Rutgers University. Among his other books is Epidemic Disease in Fifteenth Century England.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 203 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (March 1, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0029123704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0029123706
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #479,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
In 1347, the boat drifted into Messina Harbor in Sicily with all hands aboard, dead. The ship was taken as a prize, brought to harbor, and the rats jumped ship. So starts the narrative of the greatest pestilence in history.

Gottfried writes in the style of a docudrama that adds to the dread of what you know will occur. Three forms of plague destroyed between one third to two fifths of the world's population. The first was the bubonic strain, the second was pneumonic, and the third was septacemic plague. The second was more virulent than the first, and the third was the deadliest of all, killing its host within 24 hours. Such a quick demise however, also meant it was the least likely to spread and ravage a larger population.

The author tells us of communities that rose to the occasion by quaranteening themselves, those who thought the disease was caused by the position of the stars, or the wrath of God bringing judgment day. Many reacted dysfunctionally by penitent, self-flagellation making germ contamination faster, and reaching a larger population as they moved from town to town. Delirious people did the St. Vitus dance to exhaustion. Other towns used perfume and sanitation to combat the evil.

This plague resurfaced every twenty-five years or so thereafter, bringing lasting changes. Whole families and estates had been wiped out or abandoned. Universities sprung up to better understand the nature of disease, and some municipalities introduced sanitation measures on a regular basis. Ships placed discs around their lines to prevent the arrival or departure of ship rats.

The plague is no longer the danger it once was thanks to antibiotics, but its effects linger in the familiar kindergarten song that kids still sing: "Ring around the rosey, pocket full of posey. Ashes, ashes, all fall down."

This may be one of the best books about the black death you will ever read.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb piece of history November 28, 1998
By A Customer
This is the second book I read about the Black Death of 1347-51. I was equally impressed with the way Gottfried presented his materials. The author also examines several other diseases that were common in those days, and takes a scientific look at the bacillus that infected fleas and, eventually, the rodents that spread the epidemic. Thoroughly researched (look at his bibliography), this is a terrific book for anyone wanting to know not only about the Black Death but also about its aftermath in Europe (it shaped and changed the future of Europe). I would rank this book with Philip Ziegler's classic "The Black Death."
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44 of 55 people found the following review helpful
This is not light bedtime reading. Rather, it appears to be a textbook masquerading as popular history. The book begins with an attempt to explain plague ecology. As an academic with a background in both history and ecology I found this section raised more questions than it answered. By the time Gottfried moved the plague from its endemic homes in Asia through 14th C Europe we knew what it was, how it moved, and were thoroughly saturated with facts about the purported and hypothetically actual mortality in every major city in Europe. But some things don't add up. If, for instance, the mortality rate for bubonic plague was 50%, and 50% of the population of Siena died in the first attack, then every man, woman, and child in Siena was infected. Even in an era of poor sanitation and relaxed attitudes toward personal hygiene, that strains our credulity.
The second half of the book is less tedious. Here Gottfried deals with the effects of the plague, on medicine, economics, government, sociology, and many other aspects of life in the late Middle Ages. This is history as it should be written, and it is hard to believe the same author wrote the overwhelmingly dull first half. My recommendation: buy this book only if you have an academic interest in the effects of the plague on pre-Renaissance European affairs.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book on the Black Death December 9, 2001
This is a fascinating book on the plague pandemics of the 14th century and the way they changed the world. After a very interesting description of some essential medical facts about the plague, such as where it came from, how it is transmitted and the effects the different strains have on the human body, Mr Gottfried describes how European society was conformed just prior to the outbreak. Then he proceeds to give a very detailed account of the advance of the epidemic throughout the Mediterranean Basin and the European Continent and the effects it had in different geographical areas. He also deals with the reactions of the clergy (both Muslim and Christian), the secular authorities and the people in general and proposes answers to some very interesting questions (why only 15% of the population of Nuremberg died while in Florence the mortality rate may have been as high as 75%?). After the immediate effects of the epidemic, where extensive quotes from contemporary sources are included, we get an analysis of the long term consequences and the the way the Black Death altered European society and culture for ever. This book is scholarly and well researched but also very accessible to the layman.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, filled with facts. June 1, 1997
By A Customer
Gottfried's Black Death is one of the best books on the subject. The black death was a period of history that its participants would soon forget, at the expense of future generations. The author has managed to scour Europe and collect an incredable resource of singularly obscure facts to form the "big picture." The Black Death permanently changed the world, and brought about the Renaissance
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars a brilliant book about the way the black death influenced history and...
it is a remarkable book that starts by relating the history of several deseases and the posible impact they had on ancient empires and societies. Read more
Published 5 months ago by alain
4.0 out of 5 stars Fleas
My own term paper for one of my History class dealt with subject. This book added to my knowledge of events.
Published 8 months ago by Lloyd Newell
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful commentary on the most horrible epidemic in human history
I finished my first novel Not Without Mercy The Black Death, in the middle of 2012. During my research about the Black Death I came across Mr. Gottfried's book, The Black Death. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Phill Wright
2.0 out of 5 stars The Black Death bored me to death
Much too much technical info. Too many medical terms for the layman. Perhaps it was my mistake to order this book. I quit it about 40 persent through.
Published 9 months ago by R. Steinecke
3.0 out of 5 stars Parts will fascinate you, and parts will bore you to death
This book is a mixed bag: parts are riveting - and parts are tedious (although awe inspiring for the pure depth of the research that went into them). Read more
Published 10 months ago by Andy
5.0 out of 5 stars Black death review
Well written, easy to understand. Learnt what actually happened during the years of the black death? Extremely enlightening. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jon
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but More like a Research Paper
It was interesting in it's information and I learned quite a few things from it but it was not exactly what you would call "fluid". Read more
Published 11 months ago by Sparrow
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of Date Presentation of History
The general information contained is fairly accurate. The content is nicely presented and it is an enjoyable read, considering the subject matter. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Physical Science Guy
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was expecting
I found this book difficult to read as it seemed more like a college textbook. I gave up on it after the first 20 pages.
Published 14 months ago by Jean Giles
5.0 out of 5 stars great!
this made a great resource for a project I have been doing. Its not a very hard read, but contains lots of pertinent info
Published 16 months ago by samsonite
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