64 of 66 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sprawling Circumstances of the Black Plague
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...
Published on April 19, 2005 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but lacking in structure and focus
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...
Published on May 27, 2005 by J. N. Mohlman
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64 of 66 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sprawling Circumstances of the Black Plague,
This review is from: The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (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. The strength of this historical account - and what readers will remember most about it - is the vivid depiction of medieval life as it circles around, and then centers on, the plague itself. The psychological damage beyond the physical loss is poignantly illustrated on almost every page.
The author outlines not only the complex forces at work during the plague, but also the far-reaching consequences of it, both in the changes it wrought more or less immediately in Europe and in our approach to disease today. Readers intrigued by the societal and environmental elements of a pandemic will find this history rich with detail and complexity.
66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping And Ghastly Tale,
This review is from: The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (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.
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but lacking in structure and focus,
This review is from: The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (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. The flip side of the coin is a an over reliance on historical recreations where simple reference to the available source material would have been more effective, simpler and more academically honest.
These same problems continue to crop up throughout "The Great Mortality" but so do the positives. In particular, Kelly does an excellent job of placing the impact of the plague within the context of societal and demographic change that so shaped the Renaissance and Reformation. Most notably, he quite adeptly explores how the plague broke Europe out of a population/resource deadlock and drove innovation and the rise of European global dominance. He quite rightly posits that in the absence of the plague and subsequent waves of disease could have left Europe as a cultural and economic backwater struggling to scrape out an existence on over-utilized land, much like the present day Third World. However, he fails to extrapolate this impact to the rest of the world. He makes several references to the tremendous death toll in China and India, and their role in the spread of the disease, but fails to give them equal consideration. To a point, this is an unfair complaint as Kelly makes it clear he is focusing on the European Black Death. However, his decision to paint (and quite correctly) a picture of a global community means he has to take a global view, and the failure to offer even a cursory summary of the plague in the East feels like unfinished business.
Ultimately, "The Great Mortality" provides a nice introduction to the Black Death, although if you are a real history buff you may find yourself (like me) looking for more rigorous follow up volumes. At it's best, "The Great Mortality" offers a sterling view of the global implications of a pandemic, including sociological, economic, political and philosophical. Unfortunately, this is often offset by unfinished thoughts and poorly explained details. Kelly has produced an interesting, easy to read volume, and I would advise anyone with an interest in the period to check it out, but it could have been more.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enthralling, compelling read!,
own right, and even though what is being described happened centuries ago, it felt like something like it could happen again. I read it in one sitting! FIVE
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, Interesting, Scary,
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.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Mortality Teaches Many Lessons,
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Really brings the Black Death to life,
John Kelly's research brought some of the millions of personal stories involved in that plague to the page in heratbreaking and, surprisingly, sometimes hilarious detail.
After reading this book, I sure intend to keep a cleaner apartment and flea free pets!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthy account of a sordid human tragedy,
After a short discussion into the political, economic, and hygienic state of medieval Europe, the balance of the book takes the reader on a virtual tour across the infected cities of Europe. In most cases, the works of contemporary chroniclers of the time are used to bring this world to life. The ride begins with an examination of Sicily in the autumn of 1347, where the outbreak on the Continent is believed to have originated. From there, other areas of Europe are examined in light of the devastation that was caused. The author excels at applying meticulous attention to the most important details of the disease, including the way in which plague arrived in cities, its death toll, and the sociological reaction to it. Surprisingly, social order very rarely broke down in spite of superfluous mortality.
I offer one cautionary note to the potential reader. This book does fill space by straying from the subject of Bubonic plague. At times, the Great Mortality reads more like a survey of medieval history, with anecdotal accounts of political, literary, and historically notable personalities and events of the middle ages. This is not always a bad thing, especially if you are interested in this era. But overall, I felt that the book could have been trimmed around fifty pages as certain accounts drag on a bit too long.
In spite of its weaknesses, The Great Mortality is a very readable survey of the Black Death. For me, it didn't have quite the same personal affect as Richard Preston's, The Hot Zone or The Cobra Event (albethey fictitious novels). Still, the book effectively expresses the sheer scope of this great human tragedy and is worth taking a look at.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The key word is "intimate",
First- a very intimate look at the plague itself- where it came from, how it spread in minute details...
Second- a very detailed account of everyday life during this period throughout each affected geographic area. This information is both amazing and important to an overall understanding of the course of history...
Third- the aftereffects and the learnings that all of us can take from this very devestating time in history.
The key is that the text is extremely easy to read and very well documented. Its a history that reads as a great story unfolding.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Popular History of the Black Death,
I've read several scholarly histories about social disintegration, including Barbara Tuchman's wonderful "A Distant Mirror" and the less convincing "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. These other books are often enlightening, but can get bogged down in scholastic pretention (one such book has 78 pages of footnotes -- yikes!).
Not so Kelly's new work. It mixes science, legend, investigative reporting, achaeology, demographics, grass-roots history and about a dozen other disciplines into a fast-paced narrative that will hold you captivated for hours.
In "The Great Mortality," you'll learn not only about the plague itself, but also about the psychology of Medieval Europe. Why, for example, did the people of Basel, Switzerland, blame the plague on local Jews and ultimately burn them alive on an island outside of town? Why did the cowardly Pope of that time flee Avignon while his best physician stayed behind? Where did the plague come from originally and what long-term effects did it have on our culture, right up to this day?
If you enjoy world history, and you have a strong stomach, this is a must-read book for 2005. Don't miss it.
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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S.) by John Kelly (Paperback - January 31, 2006)