Month: October 2014

Plague. Or The Great Mortality, A Review

How fitting for Halloween. I wanted to highlight some of my favourite parts of this book I’ve just read, because it was great.

As you will remember from this post, the book in question is The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2005). It concerns the European pandemic of bubonic, pneumatic and septicaemic plague that wiped out half the population between 1344 and 1352, this unfortunately being only the beginning of a catastrophic series of plagues that continued for the next three hundred years. It really is amazing that there was anyone left.

It is a thoughtful and scholarly book. Kelly has an elegant turn of phrase. Moreover, the Plague being what it is, there are plenty of gruesome little scenes and stories. Here are some examples.

Kelly describes the plague’s summer in Florence:

[A]s if emboldened by its success, with each passing day the pestilence killed with ever-mounting ferocity. It killed through a gray, wet April and a sunny May; and when the summer came and the July sun baked a thousand tangerine rooftops, it killed with an even greater ferocity, as if killing was the only happiness it knew.


Kelly drew my attention to a collection of stories, written at the time of the great plague, called The Decameron, which sounds absolutely amazing and like something I should read for the Classic Literature badge:

In the opening scene of The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s allegory set in hills above Black Death Florence, several young women, “fair to look upon” and highborn, are attending a funeral in the city. Afterward, sitting in the oppressive darkness of the church nave, the little group falls into a fit of communal gloom. Outside, on the hot, pestilential streets, a world of pain and death awaits them. Suddenly a member of the group— a pretty young woman named Pampinea— brightens. Turning to her companions, she says, “Dear ladies, Here we linger for no purpose . . . [other] than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial . . . If this be so (and we plainly perceive that it is), what are we doing here? . . . We could go and stay together in one of our various country estates. . . . There we shall hear birds singing . . . see fresh green hills and plains, fields of corn undulating like the sea.”
While the sparkling twenty-somethings in The Decameron are fictional , the account of the plague that precedes their conversation in the church is not. Giovanni Boccaccio lived though the Black Death in Florence, and his account of the epidemic captures the texture and feel of life in a pestilential city as no other document of the period does. “It is a remarkable story I have to relate,” Boccaccio begins, then offers the reader a small sample of how “remarkable” life in Florence was. “One day,” he says, “the rags of a pauper who had died from the disease were thrown into the street where they attracted the attention of two pigs. In their wonted fashion, the pigs first of all gave the rags a thorough mauling with their snouts, after which they took them between their teeth and shook them against their cheeks. And within a short time, they began to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to the ground, spread-eagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing.”


On the speed and rates of contagion of the Great Plague, in comparison to the Third Pandemic, which was a massive outbreak of plague in the early 20th century (Y. pestis is the plague-causing bacterium):

while millions died, the plague of the Third Pandemic proved to be a far more manageable disease than the plague of the Black Death. In early-twentieth-century India, Y. pestis traveled at an average of eight miles per year; in South Africa, a little faster: eight to twenty miles annually. By contrast, in Black Death Europe , Y. pestis covered the eighty-one kilometers between Pisa and Florence in two months— January to March 1348. In France and England the disease also moved with alacrity. Between Marseille and Paris, it traveled at a rate of two and a half miles per day; between Bristol and London, at two miles per day. Contagion rates were also strikingly different. When the plague season arrived in Third Pandemic India, people would simply move two hundred yards from the family home, encamp, and wait for the disease to burn itself out. Indeed, Y. pestis proved so lethargic, British doctors in the colonial medical service joked that the safest place to be during the pandemic was the plague ward of a hospital. The pestilence of the Black Death, in contrast, was the pathogenic equivalent of a piranha. Boccaccio’s description of the two pigs who fell dead after shaking an infected blanket was not literary hyperbole. The medieval plague spread so quickly, several medieval medical authorities were convinced the disease was spread via glance. “Instantaneous death occurs,” wrote a Montpelier physician, “when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick.


A few more sparkling shards of history: I loved this idea of ‘accidents of the soul’. I think it is beautiful. It is a term that was in use by doctors in the 1300s. They advised people to avoid accidents of the soul so as to stay healthy and preserve themselves from plague:

the Paris masters urged people to avoid “accidents of the soul,” a far more felicitous description of emotional upset than our dreary modern clinical terms. To be especially eschewed were fear, worry, weeping, speaking ill of others, excessive cogitation, and wrath, which, according to Gentile da Foligno, “overheated the members.” Sadness, which cools the body, dulls the mind, and deadens the spirit, also predisposed a person toward plague. Good, in Ibn Khatimah’s view, was stupidity, which lowered the risk of pestilence; bad was intelligence, which raised it.


After the plague remain your most precious possessions: your fortune, your body, your time. Words of wisdom for TLYW.

On a glorious morning, Christendom awoke to find the plague gone. Life and joy, denied for so long, demanded their due. Survivors drank intoxicatingly, fornicated wildly, spent lavishly, ate gluttonously, dressed extravagantly. In England craftsmen took to wearing silk cloth and belts with silver buckles, and ignored a royal ordinance forbidding the lower orders from eating meat and fish at more than one meal a day. In Orvieto, where almost half the town lay buried in local plague pits, couples copulated on the freshly laid grass above the pits. In France “men became more miserly and grasping.” And everywhere survivors luxuriated in the sudden abundance of a commodity that only a few months earlier had seemed so fragile, so perishable— time: wonderful, glorious , infinite time. Time for family, for work. Time to gaze into an evening sky. Time to eat and drink and make love. “There are three things a man may say properly belong to him,” declares a character in a work by the Florentine humanist Leon Battista Alberti. When a companion asks what they are, Alberti’s character replies: a man’s fortune, his body—“ and a very precious thing, indeed.” “Incredible, what is it?” asks the companion. “Time, my dear Lionardo,” Alberti’s character replies.
The burst of postplague debauchery disappointed, though did not surprise, moralists like Matteo Villani, the dour brother of the plague-dead Giovanni . It was further proof— as if Matteo would ever need further proof— of the innate wickedness of man. “It was thought,” he wrote after the pestilence, “that people whom God by his grace in life had preserved . . . would become better, humble, virtuous and catholic , avoiding inequities and sins and overflowing with love and charity for one another. But . . . the opposite happened. Men . . . gave themselves over to the most disordered and sordid behavior. . . . As they wallowed in idleness, their dissolution led them into the sin of gluttony, into banquets, taverns, delicate foods and gambling. They rushed headlong into lust .” Agnolo di Tura, who lived in Siena, where they were still counting the dead, offered a more succinct description of Europe’s post– Black Death mood. “No one could restrain himself from doing anything.”


And I think I will leave it there. Highly recommended.

The plague in Florence, 1348; illustrating Boccaccio’s Decameron. Etching 19th century By: Luigi Sabatelli, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

M0000786 Etching: the plague in Florence, 1348.


OK, I am going for the Swimmer badge, as part of our Brownie Points themed season. In order to keep things nice and simple, and for the avoidance of delays, I have decided that the qualification for winning this badge is going to be swimming 500 lengths of my local pool.

Several months or a year ago when I was very fit (I only now realise), when I could swim for 90 minutes or even two hours without much difficulty, I could have polished off 500 lengths in no time. But that was then and this is now. As of now, I am very unfit and out of practice. I get cramp in my feet after swimming 20 lengths, and after 30 lengths I am breathless and red in the face. But I shall not complain, I shall just get on and do it. There is only one way to become fitter, and that is to exercise. There’s no way around it, you have to go through.

So that’s why I returned to the gym this evening, keeping my head down and not looking at anyone, for fear of bumping into Delroy the Beautiful or anyone else who might remember me from when I was thin and gorgeous less than a year ago, and swam 30 lengths.

30 down, 470 to go. 1 Health point.

Brownie Points!!! My First Badge.

I had such a huge, busy day yesterday, I can’t even tell you. If I wrote about all of it in detail I would be here forever, so you will have to make do with just the important part.

The day really started in the very early hours of the morning. I was awake because I was reading. I was reading because I was on the final pages of a book, the completion of which signified WINNING MY FIRST BROWNIE BADGE!! YAY!! I finally won the first badge of the Brownie Points themed season, and it only took me a month. I am so excited!! Here is my badge, and here is the Brownie Points page where you will be able to see the badges gradually stack up.

bookworm iconBookworm

Read three books to completion.

I read Dataclysm, by Christian Rudder, Orlando by Virginia Woolf and The Great Mortality by John Kelly.


This turned out to be an unexpectedly interesting project. I like reading, I read all the time and don’t bother collecting any Achievement points for it, but, in all honesty, another reason why I don’t collect points is because I very often read things and abandon them before I get to the end. I think that’s very common, isn’t it. To read half of something and then lose interest, I’ve done that so many times. Also I’m very guilty of reading things that are lightweight and easy when in fact I would be much more stimulated and satisfied by reading something more challenging. Gradually rectifying that situation turned out to be what this first Brownie badge, the Bookworm badge, was about. First I read Dataclysm by Christian Rudder, which, while far from stupid (it is full of interesting maths, linguistics and social science) is a great example of the sort of thing I would read anyway even if I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything special, and I think I read it nearly in one sitting.

After that, it dawned on me that I should take the opportunity represented by this Brownie Badge, which is an invitation to do something different, by reading something that I’ve had on my list for ages and have been meaning to get around to, which is why I read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and reviewed it here. I had to persevere with it a bit, not least because I was recovering from the happy pills, which utterly destroyed my powers of concentration, so it was kind of an effort and I’m not ashamed to admit that I used Sparknotes to help me follow and understand it when my brain was particularly fried. I loved it and it was really worth it, I’m so glad I read it.

Based on this small success, I went on to read The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, by John Kelly. It is a long, detailed and scholarly account of the Great Plague of the mid 1300s, beginning with its origins in the Eurasian Steppe and following its vicious journey around Europe, where it wiped out the population on the scale of a thermonuclear disaster over a period of about eight horrifying years. I began to read this book months ago and gave up on it the moment it became too much like hard work. Then, so much time elapsed that I found I had forgotten every word and had to start again from the beginning. This time, I stuck with it, concentrated, finally finished it as the sun came up. It was amazing and I will do a full review here as soon as I have time.

I want to say, without the new Brownie Badges project, I would never have made it to the end of The Great Mortality. I’d already abandoned it once and certainly would have done so a second time, had I even attempted it a second time, which is not usually how things go. But on this occasion, because I wanted the Bookworm badge, I stuck with it. I made time for it even though I was busy at work and even though there were many other things I wanted to do with my little bit of free time just as much. Now I have finally made it to the end, I feel pleased and well-informed. That’s why I’m so excited about the Bookworm badge that I’ve just earned. I saw it change my habits. I was already reading, but wanting to earn the badge made me read in a very focused way, making a priority out of reading, and sticking with worthwhile works of literature all the way to the end.

So that is great. I am collecting 1 Books point for The Great Mortality, and I am claiming the Bookworm Badge because I checked off all my objectives for that.

Next steps and further ideas, in light of this Brownie Badges project, which is turning out to be so much more interesting than I expected.

  • The way these gamification schemes always go is that no sooner have you collected an achievement, than there’s a bigger one or a more specialised one waiting. Therefore, I might go for another Badge that’s called something like Big Bookworm where the idea is to read six books instead of three. If I could do that, then I could follow with Super Bookworm, which involves reading nine books, and so on. I’m sort of envisaging five levels of Badge. So if the levels went up in increments such that there was an objective of  3 books, followed by 6 books, then a further 9 books, and so on. then I would have read a total of 45 books by the time I claimed the Ultimate Bookworm Badge, which would be quite something, wouldn’t it. The criterion for these general Bookworm Badges is that I can read anything I want as long as it has some merit. It can’t be crap. But they don’t all have to be related, by subject matter or anything like that.
  • I really enjoyed reading about the 1300s and it occurred to me that perhaps I could go for an Historian Badge. I was thinking that what I could do for that, or at least the first level of it, is pick a period of history that interests me, like the Middle Ages or the Tudors or whatever, read 2 books about it, visit 2 historical sites (plenty of those around London) and perhaps make or draw something that is relevant to the period. Could be good fun, couldn’t it. I became quite interested in Edward III while I was reading about the Plague.
  • Because I enjoyed reading Orlando, it also occurred to me that maybe I could do some sort of specialised Classic Novels badge. Just to keep me pursuing all those books that I haven’t read but think I should read before I die, like Moby Dick and The Count of Monte Cristo and so on. War and Peace. Or maybe this is too ambitious or not focused enough, I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. I would have to decide ahead of time what counts as a Classic Novel.

Look at the time, I need to go to bed. More news tomorrow. One final thing: I went to the gym and swam today. It was very scary returning to the gym after so many months away and I hate my bulky, overweight body but there is only one way to solve that problem and the gym is it. So I swam. 30 lengths. 1 Health point.

I am totally going to start working towards a Swimming Badge.

I might be the world’s most rapidly-expanding woman.

I just got on the scales and I weigh 154 pounds. That means I’ve gained 8 pounds in three weeks. I’ve also gained about 20 pounds since I hit my weight loss goal back in February. But nearly half of that has happened in the last three weeks.

Jesus H Christ. I just feel despair. Eight pounds in three weeks plus three periods in just over a month is the reason why I cancelled Blondie this weekend. I may be fit for some things, but sex is not one of them. I need to go to the gym. I don’t know when work is going to let me. Maybe if I start getting up very very early in the mornings.

Well, that happened in the nick of time.

I am so glad I am off these drugs and that my brain is starting to function again. I am suddenly INSANELY busy at work. I mean INSANELY busy. The more I do, the more there is to do, it is horrifying, it is like a hydra. I have sent hundreds of emails today, I had three hours of sleep last night, I’ve just written the longest research paper of my career, I have meetings nearly every day and now I have to go to events in Paris and Brussels. All of this is imminent.

Added to this, I am the size of a small country, I can’t fit into my clothes and I am having my third period in five weeks.

I just have no words. I recall that I managed to score 1 Art point some time since I last blogged but I now can’t remember exactly when it was. It’s been a very, very long day.


I have played no video games today, which is what I was hoping to do with my day, having installed a bunch of games yesterday and got up bright and early this morning with that express intention, and now I don’t even want to.

Instead, I have spent the whole day reading financial paperwork. Carefully reading every single document I possess in connection with my house purchase, mortgage, lease, buildings insurance, conveyancing, etc. That bit took over four hours all by itself. I found out that I am liable for the roof repairs after all. I am liable for 12.5% of the total cost of the roof. And a share of the scaffolding. And the full cost of all of my six windows. Fuck fuck fuck.

After that, because my mood for fun had completely evaporated, I started reading and filing documents about home contents insurance and travel insurance and life insurance and tax and credit cards. And then I filed receipts and sorted bank statements and separated urgent work tasks into a separate tray, and on and on. It has used up the whole entire day, it’s 7pm now and I might as well just carry on because I am fit for nothing else. Even the thought of alcohol has lost its appeal.

I still don’t know what the final damage is that I’m going to incur for windows plus roof, I just know that it is going to be a lot and that the work is scheduled to happen within the next 8 weeks. So I will just have to hope that I can scrape together the necessary funds.

It is a good job that I have already paid for the new cooker and it is also a good job that the people from the blinds company didn’t fulfil their appointment because I can’t afford it now. I will just have to tack up a net curtain or something with some drawing pins. FML.

I am so having a Finance point for this. 1 Finance point, motherfuckers. That was about the least fun it’s possible to have on what is allegedly a day off.

monday good

Homeowner pain.

Did I mention how much I hate being a so-called home-owner (should be called home-ower). I had about two days of feeling vaguely responsible because I made a giant payment on my mortgage and now the situation becomes even more painful. I have just returned from a meeting with other people who own flats in my building, and:

  • The windows all over the building have to be replaced immediately and I am fully and privately responsible for the cost of the windows in my flat, of which there are a lot.
  • Windows means scaffolding, which is expensive and has to be paid for separately.
  • Because of the expensive scaffolding, the plan is to permanently repair the leaking roof at the same time. Roofers have been out twice now, the last two weekends, but the roof is in such a bad condition that the repairs that have been done are only temporary and now it has to be repaired properly. I don’t think I am privately responsible for the cost of repairing the roof, but I need to find out who is, and in the short term I am going to have to supply funds up front for both the windows and my share of the roof, which is going to be really challenging because I just blew all my money on my mortgage. I could have come up with money for the windows but I didn’t realise scaffolding was a separate cost, or how expensive it is, and I frankly don’t know where roof money is going to come from.

This is not pleasant. I would very much like to do some video gaming this Sunday morning but I can’t, not yet, anyway. What I need to do is sit down at my desk right now and go through all of the paperwork relating to my purchase of this flat and find out exactly what I’m liable for and where the roof money is going to come from. Hate.

I am having 1 Reclaiming The Home point for this activity, because if getting the roof and 6 windows replaced isn’t Reclaiming the Home, then I really don’t know what is. Also 1 Friends point because I went to visit a friend on Friday, which now strikes me as extravagant. Aaargh. I need a cup of tea. I wouldn’t mind something stronger but it is only 11am and I daren’t risk not being able to understand the buildings paperwork.

Madness: Our House (1982)