Friday, March 30, 2007

The Great Mortality

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly (2005, Harper Collins) chronicles the devastating effects of the plague on Europe, circa 1347-1352. Kelly takes us on a journey of death as he follows the plague’s incredibly swift progress from country to country. This gripping account of the plague's progress loses some of the initial intensity in the middle of the book, but the pace picks up again once the plague is approaching England. All the reasons that the plague spread so quickly are covered. The different ways countries or cities tried to cope with the Black Death can be a contrast of opposite reactions. Kelly also discusses the emergence of the flagellants and the pogroms and killing of the Jewish population across Europe that were a result of the people trying to deal with the plague.


Of personal hygiene at the time: "When the assassinated Thomas `a Becket was stripped naked, an English chronicler reports that vermin 'boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron' from his body."

"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."

"Neither was the standing of the church helped by a penchant for blaming the victim, a habit particularly pronounced among the English clergy."

"The long century of death that followed the medieval plague also had a profound effect on religious sentiment. People began to long for a more intense, personal relationship with God... In an age of 'arbitrary, inexplicable tragedy' many people sought to create their own private pipeline to God."

" [N]o other epoch has also done so little to soften the image of death. Late medieval man not only expected to die, he expected to die hard and ugly."

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