Book Review

Book Review: The Black Death (Hourly History)

“In men and women alike, it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours, in the groin or the armpit, some of which grew as large as a common apple..” – The Decameron, Boccaccio.

Those were the symptoms of “mors nigra” or Black Death, a plague that obliterated half of Europe’s population, from 1348 to 1360 AD. But what is interesting is that the plague originated in West China and Mongolia and then travelled to Europe via the Silk Route. It had originated in China a decade before it reached Europe. It was introduced to Europe (specifically to Venice and Milan) through people fleeing from the port city of Kaffa, which was under siege by a Mongol army.

Here’s an excerpt from Plague in Siena by Agnolo di Tura, who witnessed the horrific effects of the plague first-hand:

“The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura . . . buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

Although the disease is thought to have been caused by Yersinia pestis, there have been theories that it might have been caused by Anthrax or even an Ebola-like virus. The book describes the complete process of transmission of Y. pestis from fleas to rats to humans. What is downright alarming is that bubonic plague even today has a death rate of up to 75% and it still occurs in Africa.

The consequences of the Black Death were far-reaching. People displayed less reverence and began to think critically. The chapter on the effects of Black Death on art (see Danse Macabre) and literature is fascinating. This book also covers a short history of pandemics in ancient and medieval world. Before the Black Death, there was another pandemic known as Plague of Justinian (541–542 AD) and after it came two more pandemics.

This is an excellent introductory book that covers almost all aspects of the pandemic. I would recommend it to everyone.

5 stars.

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