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The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 1, 2005

156 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060006921 ISBN-10: 0060006927 Edition: First Edition

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Editorial Reviews Review

A book chronicling one of the worst human disasters in recorded history really has no business being entertaining. But John Kelly's The Great Mortality is a page-turner despite its grim subject matter and graphic detail. Credit Kelly's animated prose and uncanny ability to drop his reader smack in the middle of the 14th century, as a heretofore unknown menace stalks Eurasia from "from the China Sea to the sleepy fishing villages of coastal Portugal [producing] suffering and death on a scale that, even after two world wars and twenty-seven million AIDS deaths worldwide, remains astonishing." Take Kelly's vivid description of London in the fall of 1348: "A nighttime walk across Medieval London would probably take only twenty minutes or so, but traversing the daytime city was a different matter.... Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road." Yikes, and that's before just about everything with a pulse starts dying and piling up in the streets, reducing the population of Europe by anywhere from a third to 60 percent in a few short years. In addition to taking readers on a walking tour through plague-ravaged Europe, Kelly heaps on the ancillary information and every last bit of it is captivating. We get a thorough breakdown of the three types of plagues that prey on humans; a detailed account of how the plague traveled from nation to nation (initially by boat via flea-infested rats); how floods (and the appalling hygiene of medieval people) made Europe so susceptible to the disease; how the plague triggered a new social hierarchy favoring women and the proletariat but also sparked vicious anti-Semitism; and especially, how the plague forever changed the way people viewed the church. Engrossing, accessible, and brimming with first-hand accounts drawn from the Middle Ages, The Great Mortality illuminates and inspires. History just doesn't get better than that. --Kim Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

The Black Death raced across Europe from the 1340s to the early 1350s, killing a third of the population. Drawing on recent research as well as firsthand accounts, veteran author Kelly (Three on the Edge, etc.) describes how infected rats, brought by Genoese trading ships returning from the East and docked in Sicily, carried fleas that spread the disease when they bit humans. Two types of plague seem to have predominated: bubonic plague, characterized by swollen lymph nodes and the bubo, a type of boil; and pneumonic plague, characterized by lung infection and spitting blood. Those stricken with plague died quickly. Survivors often attempted to flee, but the plague was so widespread that there was virtually no escape from infection. Kelly recounts the varied reactions to the plague. The citizens of Venice, for example, forged a civic response to the crisis, while Avignon fell apart. The author details the emergence of Flagellants, unruly gangs who believed the plague was a punishment from God and roamed the countryside flogging themselves as a penance. Rounding up and burning Jews, whom they blamed for the plague, the Flagellants also sparked widespread anti-Semitism. This is an excellent overview, accessible and engrossing.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (February 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060006927
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060006921
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #775,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Kelly is an author and indepedent scholar now specializing in the intersection of European history with health, human behavior, and science, all of which were his previous subjects. His The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, published by HarperCollins in 2005 (paperback, 2006), "conveys in excruciating but necessary detail a powerful sense of just how terribly Europe suffered," said Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, while The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani said, "John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrible ravages of [the] plague."
Kelly is at work now on The Graves Were Walking: The Great Irish Famine and the Failure of British Nation-Building, for Henry Holt, a vivid, character-driven history of the devastation of mid-19th century Ireland, drawing on never-before-published material and presenting an entirely new thesis, with significant resonance to U.S. domestic and international events today. His 1999 Three on The Edge: The Stories of Ordinary American Families In Search of a Medical Miracle (Bantam) was called, by Publishers Weekly, "A compelling, touching account, rendered without sentiment by an expert storyteller."
Kelly lives in Manhattan and Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

76 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In this book exploring the times and the details of the Black Plague, John Kelly introduces the lay reader to the pestilence that wiped out up to sixty percent of some of Europe's most bustling cities. From Messina to Florence to Paris to London - and all the cities and towns between and around them, the populace could not stop the spread of this particularly virulent form of Yersinia pestis, whether they sought laws to restrict it or simply chose to ignore it. The book provides insights into some of the potential causes of why this bout of plague is unequaled in history: sanitation, specific rodent populations (including that of the tarabagan of the Russian steppes), societal traditions, a burgeoning "global" economy, warfare, bacteriology, and other theories. The epidemiology of the disease and the forms it takes, from the "gurgling" bubos of bubonic plague to the respiratory infection that sounds frighteningly close to the hemorrhagic fevers, make for fascinating, if gruesome, reading.

The author recreates the events of individuals who succumbed to Y. pestis through written documentation and his own imagination. For an example, he writes "The headstone tells us only enough to suggest the following scenario . . . " He then continues for a page and a half to describe in detail the final days of a husband and wife. I found the method to make the plague more "intimate" through invented details somewhat troubling, although readers will find these passages the most compelling because of their focus on the individual. The book can occasionally be repetitive, stating in one chapter what was stated earlier.
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71 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on February 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
John Kelly has produced a nasty, fascinating tale with The Great Mortality, as he covers the history of the Black Death (ca. 1347-1352) tour of Europe. One should not make the mistake of reading this book over lunch as the descriptions are accurately nauseating in their thoroughness. At times, a hint of monotony does creep into the tale as each country's encounters with the swiftly spreading disease is told. The tale does not vary much and is most interesting in the earlier chapters with the diseases first encounters with Europe in Italy. The book's strengths are its discussion of recent scholarship on both the origin and the nature of the plague. It is a gripping story of a most horrific and unimaginable event.
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72 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on May 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
At it's best, John Kelly's "The Great Mortality" is a gripping, in your face look at the Black Death that began in 1348. Using a host of primary sources he draws the reader into what feels like a firsthand account of those grim days, all while remaining grounded in modern science and history. Unfortunately, at its worst it is a meandering account full of poorly identified speculation that fails to effectively straddle history and science. The result is an engaging, but ultimately uneven account that while worth reading fails to live up to its potential.

Kelly's introduction immediately reveals some of these flaws. He offers an overview of how the plague arose in nature, how it burst out of its generally isolated ecological niche, and its impact on society and history. There is much to commend this introduction, as it quite nicely captures the evolution of a pseudo-global economy, and its impact on the spread of the disease. He also offers some interesting insight into where plague fits in the natural order, and how it made the jump from rodents to humans. However, Kelly also tends to pass off assumptions of human behavior as fact, and frequently takes contemporary sources at face value, a cardinal sin in a history, but particularly when dealing with an era as steeped in superstition as the Middle Ages. Moreover, a problem that plagues (no pun intended) "The Great Mortality" is that Kelly never seems quite sure if he wants to be primarily a historian or a scientist. The result is a flirting with scientific theory that never quite meets expectations, and leaves the reader frustrated.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on March 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Today the news reports are about a new avian flu recently discovered in asia. The new flu has a mortality rate of 72%. Depending on the version of the plague you are talking about, the mortality was just about the same. Six centuries ago medicine knew nothing about the bacteria that caused plague, now we know little about the virus causing the avian flu.

This book almost seems to be several books in one.

First it's a history, drawing on original source material -- contemporary letters, diaries, and chronicles. It's a history, not only of the 1300's, but of Shiro Ishii and his experiments as commander of the Japanese Army's biological warfare unit during World War II that deliberately infected the Chinese city of Changteh.

Second it's a text, the nature of the plague, how it spreads, where, why, and how. It has a discussion of the various types of plague, and some discussion that the disease may not have been plague at all but possibly anthrax or an Ebola-like filovirus.

Third, it's a warning. With modern day transportation, not only of people on airplanes, but thousands of containers coming in with products made almost anywhere in the world. And that doesn't take in the possibility of deliberate attacks.

The writing style in this book is fascinating, a delight to read and the information content is very high and unfortunately it coule be timely.
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