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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005)

by John Kelly

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,6135910,529 (3.91)67
History. Medical. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:

"Powerful, rich with details, moving, humane, and full of important lessons for an age when weapons of mass destruction are loose among us." ‚?? Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history‚??even more so now, when the notion of plague has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern.

The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics to tell the story: how many people died; how farm output and trade declined. But statistics can't convey what it was like to sit in Siena or Avignon and hear that a thousand people a day are dying two towns away. Or to have to chose between your own life and your duty to a mortally ill child or spouse. Or to live in a society where the bonds of blood and sentiment and law have lost all meaning, where anyone can murder or rape or plunder anyone else without fear of consequence.

In The Great Mortality, author John Kelly lends an air of immediacy and intimacy to his telling of the journey of the plague as it traveled from the steppes of Russia, across Europe, and into England, killing 75 million people‚??one third of the known population‚??before it va… (more)

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» See also 67 mentions

English (58)  Italian (1)  All languages (59)
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
This book was written before Covid, a plus as far as I am concerned as it avoids the inevitable need to make forced after-the-fact parallels between the Black Death and the last few years. It recounts the progression of the Black Death though Europe from the perspective of various cities, giving the reader a sense of the dismally unsanitary world in which the disease spread, the calamitous losses, and how communities dealt with it. Some degree of repetition emerges from this pattern as most cities had similar experiences and dealt with the disease in similar ways. Of course, a few parallels to Covid do emerge and are all-the-more noteworthy precisely because they are not forced and after-the-fact. Those parallels include inflation, labor shortages, zealotry, conspiracy theories, and humanity’s apparently limited ability to act rationally when under duress. ( )
  TapsCoogan | Jul 4, 2023 |
The author addresses the plight of each Europe as a whole, instead of only one country. The reader begins with a chapter on how the disease attacks the body, the three types and how it is spread. Then a timeline of how he disease crossed Europe, examining each country in turn. The author also covers the political drama, horrific Jewish persecutions, the Flagellant movement and natural disasters (earthquakes, flooding) that occurred simultaneously with the Black Death. It is still debated today as to why the Black Death devastated the human population to such an immeasurable extent in the 14th c, and why at that particular time. Kelly seems to be in favor of Nature's far-reaching and corrective hand. The human population was booming and the opportunistic rodent populations essentially bred themselves into a "Malthusian pruning mechanism." I'm not sure I'm in agreement, but the author provides an excellent argument.

Food for thought:
"Technological innovation that included the horse collar, the carruca plow, the watermill and the windmill increased agricultural productivity, thus a population boom and protective, isolating forests came down."
"In the later Middle Ages death...was seen as the moment at which the individual...took stock of the meaning of life...The plague pit was the antithesis of this idea: it made death anonymous, casual, and left the individual unrecognizable."
"Many people seem to have died not because they had a particularly virulent case of the plague, but because the individuals who normally cared for them were either dead or ill...The farmers who grew the food and those who carted it into the city were also being decimated by plague."

There are parts that could've been trimmed, but overall an easy read and an excellent starter for anyone learning about the Black Plague. ( )
  asukamaxwell | Feb 3, 2022 |
This is a fascinating and in-depth look of the Black Plague that swept through Constantinople, Asia Minor, North Africa, and all of Europe in the 14th Century. It seemed fitting to read it now in 2021, in part to remind myself that we've been here before, and to understand more of what went on way back then.

Kelly does a phenomenal job with explaining where the Plague came from, which rodent on the plains of Mongolia carried the flea, and how there were really two kinds of Plague: pneumonic and Bubonic. I had no idea. He also uses contemporary sources as a way to point out that what was "every living soul" in medieval writing was, in truth, closer to 30 percent or 40 percent and why. Because there were different death rates in different areas.

And how the plague spread from Mongolia through trade routes (think: bags, packs, pack animals, minimal hygiene) to Caffa on the Black Sea, and then from there to Constantinople. Again, the hyperbole of "everyone on board the ship was dead when it was in port" gets a modern historical review.

The amount of death and destruction, though, is immense. Town by town and city by city he leads us, up water routes and across land routes, and writings by those who survived and those who didn't. Also part of the history are the economic and ecological disasters that happened in different parts of Europe; England was especially hard hit with torrential rains that resulted in widespread famine 20 years before the Plague, with resulting lowered immune systems of the children who survived the famine only to die so quickly of the Plague.

What kept me from giving this book the full 5 stars was the author's commentary and interjections of "he must have thought" and occasional pulling together of threads that too jumbled to make a great deal of sense. ( )
  threadnsong | Sep 12, 2021 |
La moria grandissima began its terrible journey across the European and Asian continents in 1347, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake. Five years later, 25 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.
  MarkBeronte | Jul 15, 2021 |
Fun! ( )
  flemertown | Jul 10, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Kellyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Davies, Matthew LloydNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
O'Meara, JoyDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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History. Medical. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:

"Powerful, rich with details, moving, humane, and full of important lessons for an age when weapons of mass destruction are loose among us." ‚?? Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Great Plague is one of the most compelling events in human history‚??even more so now, when the notion of plague has never loomed larger as a contemporary public concern.

The plague that devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century has been of never-ending interest to both scholarly and general readers. Many books on the plague rely on statistics to tell the story: how many people died; how farm output and trade declined. But statistics can't convey what it was like to sit in Siena or Avignon and hear that a thousand people a day are dying two towns away. Or to have to chose between your own life and your duty to a mortally ill child or spouse. Or to live in a society where the bonds of blood and sentiment and law have lost all meaning, where anyone can murder or rape or plunder anyone else without fear of consequence.

In The Great Mortality, author John Kelly lends an air of immediacy and intimacy to his telling of the journey of the plague as it traveled from the steppes of Russia, across Europe, and into England, killing 75 million people‚??one third of the known population‚??before it va

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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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