- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1st Edition edition (September 28, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674076133
- ISBN-13: 978-0674076136
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #257,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Black Death and the Transformation of the West 1st Edition Edition
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From Library Journal
This work is a collection of three previously unpublished lectures by the late historian Herlihy (Medieval Households, 1985). The essays redefine the historical study of the Black Death: the first examines the basic assumption that the pandemic was an outbreak of bubonic plague, the second looks at its demographic and economic consequences to medieval Europe, and the third explains the cultural changes the plague wrought. Herlihy's contention is that we can learn from this "devastating natural disaster"; for example, parallels can be drawn to today's pandemic of AIDS, especially in the resultant bigotries that both engendered. Cohn (Univ. of Glasgow) introduces the lectures, admirably setting the scene. This book, which opens a new chapter on the history and implications of the plague, is essential for all readers of medieval history.?John J. Doherty, Montana State Univ., Bozeman
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Bold, novel theories, sure to be controversial, about the medieval pandemic known as the Black Death, by late Brown University historian Herlihy. The European pestilence (dubbed the Black Death centuries later by northern European scholars) began in 1348 and ravaged the continent in intermittent waves for a century. In that time it killed millions; Herlihy estimates that in villages as far apart as England and Italy populations were reduced by as much as 70 or 80 percent. It is regarded as one of European history's watershed events. While not disputing that, Herlihy revisits much of the conventional wisdom about the demographic, cultural, and even medical impact of the plague. Indeed, he questions whether the Black Death even was plague: He notes that medieval chroniclers did not mention epizootics (mass deaths of rats or other rodents, which are a necessary precursor to plague) and did mention lenticulae or pustules or boils over the victims' bodies, which is not characteristic of plague. Herlihy observes that the illness showed some signs of bubonic plague, some of anthrax, and some of tuberculosis, and speculates that perhaps several diseases ``sometimes worked together synergistically to produce the staggering mortalities.'' Herlihy sees Europe before the Black Death as engaged in a ``Malthusian deadlock'' in which a stable population devoted most of its energy to production of food and subsistence goods. The precipitous population decline occasioned by the Black Death compelled Europe to devise labor-saving technologies that transformed the economy. In more controversial theories, Herlihy argues from the increased use of Christian given names that the Black Death caused the Christianization of what had formerly been a pagan society with a Christian veneer, and contends that in the wake of the pestilence Europeans turned to preventive measures such as birth control to check explosive population growth. A stimulating discussion of some rarely considered aspects of one of history's turning points. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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He addresses three issues. First, he points out that historians really can't be sure of the composition of the plague itself. Was it actually all just bubonic plague, or some combination of various other diseases? Second, what were the economic effects of the plague? Did the relative scarcitity of labor following the plague break Europe out of a 'Malthusian deadlock' into a growing economy? Finally, what was the effect of the plague on the social order? Did it help to Christianize Europe?
The book is written in a fairly academic style, but it is very readable. My biggest complaint is that is so short. I wish he had written more.
Regarding the epidemiological record of the Black Death, Herlihy questions the accepted interpretation that it was bubonic plague. First, he points out, Yersina pestis (bubonic plague) is transmitted through the rat flea, using humans as only a secondary host, as it much prefers rats. In fact, Herlihy posits, the rat fleas will only use humans as hosts in the absence of rats - yet curiously there are no records of large amounts of dead (or dying or oddly behaving rats) in any sources. The ebb and flow of the Black Death is also scrutinized - why, Herlihy asks, did the mortality slow during the winter and pick up and spread during the summer? Were it pneumonic plague, one would expect the opposite, as people were huddled together in homes around the hearth. Excellent questions - unfortunately, there has been no real work done on this (other than the maligned Graham Twigg, in his The Black Death: A biological reappraisal. Herlhy does not provide any satisfactory answers, either.
Herlihy's discussion of the economic effects were of particular interest, as he does much to illustrate that Western europe was locked in a "Malthusian deadlock", which was only broken by the Plague. The quantitive data he brings to bear on this (in terms of both commodity prices as well as guild membership) reinforced his point. The final lecture, on the sociological effects was the weakest of the three, although his discussion of the shift in intellecutal attitudes (and the growth of universities) brought new material to my attention.
As a brief introduction to the event, I highly recommend it. The comparisons to the current epidemological crises we face (Herlihy mentions AIDS repeatedly, not always a good fit, I think) is a little more specious. Nonetheless, a quick and worthwhile read.