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.

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