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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most… (2005)

by John Kelly

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,334529,909 (3.92)53
"The Great Mortality is John Kelly's narrative account of the medieval plague, from its beginnings on the desolate, windswept steppes of Central Asia to its journey through the teeming cities of Europe." "The Great Mortality also looks at new theories about the cause of the plague and takes into account why some scientists and historians believe that the Black Death was an outbreak not of bubonic plague, but of another infectious illness - perhaps anthrax or a disease like Ebola. Interweaving a modern scientific methodical analysis with portrait of medieval medicine, superstition, and bigotry, The Great Mortality achieves an air of immediacy, authenticity, and intimacy never before seen in literature on the plague."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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» See also 53 mentions

English (51)  Italian (1)  All languages (52)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Interesting. Nicely written. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
Despite some very silly writing and though, or perhaps because, it wears its scholarship so lightly as to make it seem diaphanous this is a wonderfully readable book.

From its beginning a couple of its qualities bothered me, and one of them did till the end. In his introduction, Kelly says that it was original source material that inspired him. In the footnotes-cum-bibliography to which I often turned there wasn't much evidence of his having drawn from primary sources, though: most of the books he cites are secondary sources like survey books on the plague. Sure, within the text he provides contemporary quotes and statistics but the source of them is usually one of those books--for heaven's sake even the footnote for a verse from Piers the Plowman refers to one of them and not directly to the poem itself.. Some of the cited titles are at least anthologies of writings of the period; on the other hand some citations are from the likes of BBC History Magazine and a Victorian historian. Early on, then, I discarded the image of a scholarly old don sleepless from the search for neglected source material and the effort of mastering languages as they were used centuries ago.

Kelly is mad keen on speculation, as well. By that I don't mean that what he says is unfounded in fact and unreliable; it's simply that he lets his imagination run away with him. (Fair dos though, he doesn't try to mislead the reader by presenting his fantasies, his might-have-been storytelling, as fact) A memorable example is his mention of the grave & graveside inscription for--possible--plague victims followed by a long account of poor imaginary Kutluk and Magnu in their final hours. Even the contents of the former's delirious and imaginary hallucinations are detailed. The inscription itself isn't.

Now and then the book turns suddenly less endearing: I'm not at all sure that he quotes someone praising global warming and someone else declaring that nuclear war wouldn't necessarily be *that* big a deal ironically. Nor is there any sign that Kelly's anything less than earnest when he says that because an ambitious young man married a woman with a bit of money, the couple's many moves to ever-dearer houses might well have been the result of her relentless nagging.

But for some reason this is terrifically readable, and if you take it as a history book written by a knowledgeable author who organises his material beautifully and who sometimes can't help himself presenting non-fiction as a fiction writer would, you will probably enjoy it hugely.
  bluepiano | Feb 26, 2018 |
This is the most accessible of the plague histories I’ve been reading recently. The book jacket describes author John Kelly as a “storyteller”, and that’s pretty accurate; Kelley intersperses his narrative with vignettes, like describing feelings of a couple who die together in their peasant hut and the anguish of a shoemaker who has to bury his wife and five children with his own hands to keep them out of a plague pit. While this makes the book very readable, Kelly is not particularly careful to distinguish between events that can be documented from contemporary records and scenes he’s making up for narrative effect. He covers a greater time period then the actual plague years, fitting the plague into the larger context by discussing the destruction of the Templars, the Avignon Papacy, and the Hundred Years War. In this way, The Great Mortality is reminiscent of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which also covers the 14th century.

Kelly also owes a lot to Ole Benedictow’s The Black Death, including copying Benedictow’s slightly annoying habit of referring to the plague as a conscious entity. Kelly is also very much on Benedictow’s side in believing that the plague was caused by Yersina pestis, and devotes a whole chapter to a pro-and-con discussion of various alternate theories - pulmonary anthrax, an Ebola-type hemorrhagic fever, and an unknown “Disease X”. He does not, however, agree with Benedictow’s belief that plague mortality approached 75%, sticking with the more traditional 25-30%.


No maps or other illustrations, but a pretty good bibliography. Not a bad choice for an introduction to the plague years and the 1300s in general. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 23, 2017 |
I thought the first 1/3 of this book was a 4/5 star review of what exactly happened in 1348 throughout Europe that ended up killing 30-50% of the populous. The last 1/3 was also 4/5 start review of how all this death changed the people, changed their religious views, lead to the persecution of Jews, and is similar to the lost generation after WWI. The second 1/3, however, is closer to 3/5 stars, and was for the most part boring anecdotes throughout the villages the Plague effected in chronological order of its attack. I think in theory this does sound really interesting...but for whatever reason, John Kelly did not convince me that I should care.
Anyways, really good book if you can get past that middle section. ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Having read a couple of historical fiction novels with the Black Death aka the Great Mortality as the book’s backdrop, I picked this book up to read to understand this apocalyptic-like event. Between the years of 1346 and 1353, the Black Death creeped across Eurasia, initially along major trade routes and later inland, killing one-third of the area’s population.

I had to slog through the initial chapters that described the plague cause, Yersinia pestis and its vector, the rat flea, which were carried on rodents such as rats and marmots. However, after this introduction, the author communicated the impact of the pandemic, chapter by chapter as the plague spreads east to west and south to north.

Lacking knowledge of today’s epidemiological studies, a panicked mankind behaved in irrational behaviors including the extermination of groups of people thought to be the cause of the disease, including Jews, lepers and gypsies. Others, believing this calamity to be the act of a vengeful God, hoped to atone for their sins through self-flagellation with whips that might have included metal hooks on the ends.

When the plague burned itself out, its departure triggered major historical changes, including the Renaissance. Clergy, being one the hardest hit group, resulted in citizens believing that the ordained were not needed as a go-between with God sowing the seeds of the Reformation a couple of centuries later. Additionally, the depopulation of the workforce spurred technological advances in the invention of labor-saving devices. One invention included the Gutenberg printing press.

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the impact of the Black Death and its ramification on public health, society, religion, and technological innovation. This event and its subsequent plague years were true history makers. ( )
  John_Warner | Nov 7, 2017 |
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For Suzanne, Jonathan, and Sofiya - To a future without plague.
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Feodosiya sits on the Eastern coast of the Crimea, a rectangular spit of land where the Eurasian steppe stops to dip its toe into the Black Sea.
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(From back cover:) La moria grandissima began its terrible journey across the European and Asian continents in 1347, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake. Five years later, twenty-five million people were dead, felled by the scourge that would come to be called the Black Death. The Great Mortality is the extraordinary epic account of the worst natural disaster in European history-- a drama of courage, cowardice, misery, madness, and sacrifice that brilliantly illuminates humankind's darkest days when an old world ended and a new world was born.
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