- Paperback: 456 pages
- Publisher: Boydell Press; 1 edition (February 13, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1843832143
- ISBN-13: 978-1843832140
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #979,331 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History 1st Edition
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From The New England Journal of Medicine
Two theses form the structure of this book: that the Black Death was the bubonic form of the rodent disease Yersinia pestis and was spread by fleas, and that it killed 60 percent or more of Europe's population with its first strike alone. To sustain these theses, the author has divided the book into 34 chapters that chart the spread of the plague country by country, even to places where few, if any, sources survive. But in places without sources or where the appearance of the Black Death was not reported, Benedictow nonetheless asserts that the plague struck and, except for a few tiny, isolated islands of population, killed 60 percent or more. In his argument that the plague was caused by Y. pestis, Benedictow relies heavily on the reports of the Indian Plague Research Commission, which were published during the first two decades of the 20th century. However, he has read these reports selectively. For instance, he maintains that the black rat (Rattus rattus) was responsible for plague in the years 1346 through 1353 as well as during the 20th century, but the Indian plague researchers found as many dead brown rats as black ones in dwellings where infection was active. In other, subtropical, zones such as northern Africa, scientists found that the black rat was the least important rat in the spread of plague to human populations; the brown rat and others such as Mus alexandrinus proved more deadly. Benedictow claims that "plague normally arrived with persons unwittingly carrying infective rat fleas in their clothing or luggage." But from studies of the clothing and luggage of tens of thousands of people migrating from plague-stricken regions, the plague commissioners concluded overwhelmingly that Y. pestis was not transmitted by these means. Benedictow argues that the Black Death and Y. pestis were both specific to households in terms of mortality -- if one member of a household contracted plague, the others soon became infected. The plague commissioners found the opposite to be true: in less than 4 percent of households was more than one person per household infected. Benedictow maintains that people in well-built stone housing were protected against plague because rats could not enter these dwellings. The plague commissioners again discovered the opposite: that rats penetrated stone and brick houses, even those with cement floors, inflicting some of the highest rates of death in these residences, whereas often some of the poorest people, living in bamboo huts, fared much better. Benedictow claims that during both plagues hospital workers were more susceptible than others. Yet in study after study, the plague commissioners reported that "the safest place to be in plague time is the plague ward." To their surprise, and in contrast to the experience during the Black Death, Y. pestis is hardly contagious even in its pneumonic form. Historians have realized since the work of Graham Twigg, in 1984, that the Black Death and the subtropical Y. pestis traveled at vastly different speeds. Even with the railway and the steamship, the 20th-century plague, because of its dependence on the homebound rat, spread overland at about 8 miles per year, whereas the contagious Black Death almost equaled that speed per day. Nonetheless, Benedictow tries to bring the two time frames closer together. He speeds up the 20th-century plague by reporting infection times only for California, where the disease is carried by the prairie dog, not the homebound rat, and has been known to move as fast as 15 miles per year. Benedictow devotes considerably more space to the slowing of the Black Death. For instance, he makes claims for earlier dates of departure of the plague at a given place, arguing that chroniclers or wills recorded the disease only after it had struck the elite members of a population; but then he does not use the same rules when discussing the plague's arrival at a second place. More often, however, Benedictow casts aside any rate of disease spread that was faster than he likes: at these junctures, the Black Death made "metastatic leaps." But even with his various stratagems, his results still show the medieval plague traveling 30 times as fast as the modern one -- a discrepancy he does not explain or even admit to. Casuistic sleights of hand plague Benedictow's demography almost as much as they do his epidemiology. When the data do not cooperate, he questions or rejects them outright. For instance, statistics from Mallorca show mortality rates of only 23 percent, but Benedictow brushes them aside, claiming that they are "infested with major problems of demography, sociology and source criticism both with respect to the level of total mortality" -- that is, Benedictow's thesis that the Black Death everywhere killed off 60 percent or more of populations -- "and to the distribution of mortality between town and countryside." Benedictow claims that the distribution of mortality rates for the Black Death shows the patterns of Y. pestis infection in 20th-century India -- that the larger the population of a given place, the lower its rate of mortality. To make the data from the two plagues fit, he not only argues that the mortality rate from the Black Death was greater than the records say, he also argues the opposite, asserting that the most authoritative population statistics for Florence, Italy, for instance -- those of Herlihy and Klapisch -- are wrong, simply because they do not square with the Y. pestis deaths distributed over city and countryside. But, again, ultimately even his manipulation of the figures fails: his doctored mortality rates for the midsize town of Prato, in Italy, and the smaller villages of its countryside (contado), for instance, were the same (42.5 to 45 percent), and both were considerably lower than the rates for its much larger regional center, Florence. Benedictow's two overarching theses collide in the end. The mortality figures for Y. pestis, even in India -- where 95 percent of deaths from plague have been recorded since the discovery of the bacillus in 1894 -- accounted for less than 1 percent of India's population even during the years of highest mortality from plague. One must compare this with Benedictow's claim that 60 percent or more of Europe died from the Black Death in a single strike of the disease. Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Benedictow's book is highly recommended. It is well written and accompanied by many helpful maps and tables of data. --Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching
The thoroughness and precision of (Benedictow's) research are admirable. (...) Opens a treasure trove of correct information. There is no doubt that (the book) should be acquired by all university libraries. --Fifteenth-Century Studies
(This) remarkable, engrossing and controversial study is the first to assemble and synthesize historical data from every region in which the Black Death wrought havoc. (...) An immense and entirely breathtaking feat of scholarship...and a moving quest to account for a cruel phenomenon. --The Times Literary Supplement
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However, I was impressed with two aspects of his methodology. The first was his clear and detailed explanation of the method of transmission of Y. pestis (from fleas that prefer rats to opportunistic feeding on humans) and, based on this, he establishment of a timeline by which the plague spreads (from time of initial arrival to the time of the first recorded deaths). Having established this, Benedictow goes on to trace the spread and the approximate arrival time of the disease across North African and Western Europe.
The majority of the book is a "nation" (I use quotation marks here, because in many cases there was no nation state - as in the case of Italy, Switzerland and Germany) by nation examination of the inferred routes the plague took, and the timelines Benedictow establishes for its arrival and eventual departure (having infected the population, the fleas looking for fresh hosts of having burned itself out.)
As previous reviewers have noted, the data tables used in the last quarter of the book (discussing mortality rates) is flawed, as the consideration of other causes of mortality are not even considered or addressed in his quantitative analysis - again, I expect more from a professional scholar. On the other hand, I was impressed with his analysis of the rate of exposure and infection in cities relative to the countryside. (His reasoning summarized thusly: cities have more rats than the countryside, therefore the time by which infected fleas begin to bit humans is longer, even after the disease reaches urban centers; likewise, the disease tends to remain in cities longer than in the countryside because there are a greater number of human hosts to feed on.)
I therefore have strongly mixed thoughts about the book: the epidemiological models and the explanation of the spread of the disease (and the estimated rate of its spread) was excellent; however, the lack of citation of sources and the quantitative generalizations are a serious flaw. For the general reader, I recommend John Kelly's _The Great Mortality_.
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.