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The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster…

The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe

by Robert S. Gottfried

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"The Black Death" is approachable, contains a lot of interesting stories which put the plague in context, and is informative. I was a little surprised at how much I liked it. Some of its more interesting points included:

- The cyclic nature of the plague, which recurred generation after generation and led to chronic depopulation. "In the Netherlands, there epidemics in 1360-62, 1363-64, 1368-69, 1371-72, 1382-84, 1400-01, 1409, 1420-21, 1438-39, 1450-54, 1456-59, 1466-72, 1481-82, 1487-90, and 1492-94. Normandy had plague cycles approximately as frequent as those in eastern England and the Netherlands, from every four to twelve years. ... Paris was struck eight times between 1414 and 1439, and Barcelona had eleven epidemics between 1396 and 1437." Can you imagine that?

- European weather patterns, which between ~750-1150 included a warming trend where glaciers retreated, after which from ~1150-1300 it got colder and wetter, glaciers returned, and pastureland that had been used for hundreds of years had to be abandoned. This led to severe food shortages and among other things, "In the Rhineland, chroniclers reported the need to post troops at gibbets in Mainz, Cologne, and Strasbourg. Ravenous people were rushing the gallows, and cutting down and eating the corpses."

- The effect on labor and boon to slavery, where the traditional source for Italian merchants had been Circassia, many of whose inhabitants where light-skinned, light-eyed, fair-haired Muslims, but following the Black Death the Italians were forced to look elsewhere, and came across the African region south of the Sahara Desert which was nearly plague-free, thus starting the black slave trade.

- The religious views of the Plague, there were many aspects to this across the three major Western religions; I quote below.

- The state of medicine, which surprisingly failed to make the link to dead rats that preceded each epidemic, and barber-surgeons, most of whom were illiterate with little medical training and had no knowledge of infection or sanitary practices. "The traditional barbers' pole of red and white probably comes from the time when barber-surgeons hung out their bloody surgical rags to dry."

- The sheer numbers involved which are hard to fathom: "The best estimate is that from 1349 to 1450 European population declined between 60% and 75%, with the bulk of the depopulation in rural areas." There are many other mind-boggling figures tossed about, e.g. ~75% of children dead before age 10, maternal mortality ~20%, and 75% of noble families in England as a result failing to produce a male heir through two generations.

On history; I love how Petrarch was able to see the bigger picture and guess that the future would be free of plague:
"As the Florentine humanist Petrarch wrote: 'Oh happy posterity who will not experience such abysmal woe - and who will look upon our testimony as fable.""

On lawyers:
"Tyler, leading a peasant army on London, exhorted his followers to 'kill all lawyers and servants of the king.'"

On the religious view of the plague; while they do show how Faith can fit their views to any reality and and explain it, the author is careful not to mock and simply states the views at the time, which I like:
"The Prophet Mohammed had claimed that deadly diseases would never reach his Holy City. When plague did come, many Islamic scholars said it was because of the presence in Mecca of nonbelievers, a position that seemed to satisfy most of the Muslim faithful."

"Muslim theologians, following long-standing doctrine, offered their followers three tenets. First, the faithful should not flee the Black Death, but rather, should stay and accept Allah's will. Second, death by plague was martyrdom, a mercy for the true believer and a punishment for the infidel. Third, in a direct rebuttal of over a thousand years of accepted wisdom, the theologians denied the general medical opinion that plague was a contagious infection transmitted from person to person. They stated it was foolish to flee from the Black Death because it was God, not men, who disseminated the disease. And there was another reason to reject the advice of doctors; God was good, and contagion was simply incompatible with His very being.
A few theologians broke with this general perspective and took a less benevolent view of the Black Death. They believed that the plague was a punishment visited on man by God because they had strayed from the straight and narrow path of true belief. This theory was taken from Old Testament exegesis, drawing heavily on examples such as God's punishment of the pharoahs."

"Time was money, an attitude that caused considerable consternation among the clergy and prompted theologians to condemn the practice of usury. They argued that usury and all commercial ventures were suspect because they assumed control over the future, a mortgate of time which was reserved for God."

"From the 1350s, apparently on papal orders, new stress was put on indulgences, or grants of time off from purgatory bestowed by the church, which drew on what it termed a 'treasury of merits,' or good deeds accumulated from Christ, the patristic fathers, and saints. Indulgences were not given freely, but usually in anticipation of a gift of money; always mindful of turning a profit, church leaders began to sell them in increasing numbers to a richer public. While indulgences were not the only thing that spurred Martin Luther, their use and sale inspired him to nail up his 95 Theses."

Related; on the massacre of Jews in 60 major and 150 smaller communities, causing them to flee to Poland and Russia, where they remained for close to 600 years:
"...the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting the wells and water, and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany ... they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. The unshaken if fatuous constancy of the men and their wives [that is, the Jews] was remarkable. For mothers hurled their children first into the fire that they might not be baptized, and then leapt in after them to burn with their husbands and children."

And finally, if the Plague weren't reason enough, a reminder of why we're lucky to live the century we do, despites its own atrocities and difficulites (hey, at least this is frowned on in today's age):
"...so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and broke up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children, great and small, and burned the house. And then they went to another castle, and took the knight thereof and tied him fast to a stake, and raped his wife and his daughter before his face, and then killed the lady and his daughter and all his other children, and then slew the knight by great torment..." (this section goes on to still worse deeds, including forced cannabalism of one's loved one). ( )
1 vote gbill | Oct 4, 2010 |
I did not notice ptroblems with this myself, but if I recall correctly it was severely criticized for including falsified material. ( )
  antiquary | Mar 25, 2010 |
The author explores how multiple causes and effects of plague were interwoven. Some of the topics explored include animal populations, environmental changes, societal change, religious thinking, farming practices, and routes for commerce. One chapter is devoted to how and why the medical system was ill equipped to deal with plague, and how plague affected medicine and education, and how that lead to the start of modern medicine, hospitals. The author's style is easy to follow and many first hand accounts are included. ( )
  AGangi | Jun 12, 2008 |
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Nature, the vicaire of the almyghty lorde.

    -- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls, c. 1380
To Philip James and Jane Louise, the apples of my eye
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In October 1347, a Genoese fleet made its way into the Messina harbor in northeast Sicily.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0029123704, Paperback)

A fascinating work of detective history, The Black Death traces the causes and far-reaching consequences of this infamous outbreak of plague that spread across the continent of Europe from 1347 to 1351. Drawing on sources as diverse as monastic manuscripts and dendrochronological studies (which measure growth rings in trees), historian Robert S. Gottfried demonstrates how a bacillus transmitted by rat fleas brought on an ecological reign of terror -- killing one European in three, wiping out entire villages and towns, and rocking the foundation of medieval society and civilization.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:42 -0400)

This book traces the far-reaching consequences of the outbreak of the Black Death and how it spread across the continent of Europe from 1347 to 1351.

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