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The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History

af Ole Jørgen Benedictow

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
782270,968 (3.92)Ingen
Unique, sensational and shocking, this revelatory book provides, for the first time, a complete Europe-wide history of the Black Death. The author's painstakingly comprehensive research throws fresh light on the nature of the disease, its origin, its spread, on an almost day-to-day basis, across Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa, its mortality rate and its impact on history. These latter two aspects are of central importance here, for it is demonstrated that the plague's death rates have consistently been under-estimated and that they were in fact much higher, making the disease's long-term effects on history even more profound.OLE J. BENEDICTOW is Professor of History at the University of Oslo.… (mere)
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I’ve already reviewed a different book on the Black Death; this one is by Norwegian historian Ole Benedictow. This is a frustrating book; there’s a lot of useful and interesting material but there’s also a lot of poorly written verbiage that’s tedious to work through.


First, though, Setnahkt’s Embarrassing Confession: I had absolutely no idea that there was any doubt that the causative agent for the medieval Black Death was anything but the bubonic plague bacillus Yersina pestis. It’s especially humbling because I consider myself reasonably up-to-date on medieval history and I’m supposed to know about stuff like this for work. I didn’t find out about the controversy until after I finished this book; it explains a lot of things that I had found puzzling. It doesn’t help that Benedictow never mentions that there’s any sort of dispute over plague origins and the rationale for the way he presents his material is cryptic until the reader learns of the debate.


After a brief discussion of plague biology, bubonic versus pneumonic versus septicemic (or bacteraemic, which is the term Benedictow prefers) modes, and the rat to flea to human transmission pathway, Benedictow launches into a tedious and somewhat bizarrely written discussion of the rate and pattern of the spread of the Black Death, country by country. It’s tedious because there’s page after page after page of dates that the disease appeared in particular medieval towns - all of this could reduced to a few maps with moderate accompanying text. (Admittedly, there’s a nice color foldout of Europe with some dates and transmission routes, but this isn’t detailed enough for some of the points Benedictow is trying to make. However, a few larger scale maps of particular regions would have done the job nicely.) It’s bizarrely written because the Black Death is repeatedly anthropomorphized, as if it were a conscious actor (for example, discussing the spread of the plague in the Iberian Peninsula: “The Black Death’s conquest of these kingdoms was accomplished with a complex and amazingly efficient strategy and extraordinary impetus and pace.”) The rate and pattern chapters occupy more than half the book. It’s a tremendous accomplishment in terms of the number of original sources that the author had to work through; it’s just too bad that it’s presented in such a boring fashion. After learning about the plague cause controversy, Benedictow’s reasons for devoting so much detail to plague spread patterns is explained; critics of Yersina as the causative agent hold that the Black Death spread too fast for a flea and rat vector and must instead must have had some sort of airborne transmission, presumably a virus. Benedictow’s trying to show, in excruciating detail, that a bacterial disease could have spread as fast.



The last part of the book is about plague mortality rates. It reads almost as if it were written by a different author; although the subject sounds dry as dust - reviews of various taxation rolls, will registrations, clergy appointments, etc. - Benedictow manages to make these things reasonably interesting and easy to follow (allowing that maybe it’s just contrast with the first part). Benedictow is out of the mainstream here - conventional wisdom among historians is that the Black Death killed about 25-30% of the European population, while Benedictow holds that the number is much larger - 60% or more, about 50M people. This is a pretty amazing number; it’s hard to imagine that such a death rate wouldn’t result in a complete collapse of society, but Benedictow’s numbers and methods seem convincing. There’s a very short - 8 pages in a 400 page book - chapter on the implications of this: the population shortage makes wages go up tremendously, leading to a more equal distribution of income and the development of a middle class. This sounds plausible enough, but there’s very little presentation of actual evidence, especially in contrast with the level of detail in other sections.


I can’t give this one any more than three stars, with the acknowledgment that some parts are very interesting indeed. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
So scholarly and dense that it takes awhile to sink in that the enormity of the carnage is so much worse than we've been taught before. My favorite book about the plague heretofore was Ziegler's classic The Black Death, but Benedictow reinterprets the same data and adds even more detail to the canon. The footnotes are as good as the text.

I did find it fairly repetitive in spots. Not because of the repetitive nature of the disease entering a village and killing most everyone, but because Benedictow does have a tendency to bludgeon the reader with facts he's concerned we might miss.

Still, an amazing piece of work. ( )
1 stem satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Unique, sensational and shocking, this revelatory book provides, for the first time, a complete Europe-wide history of the Black Death. The author's painstakingly comprehensive research throws fresh light on the nature of the disease, its origin, its spread, on an almost day-to-day basis, across Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa, its mortality rate and its impact on history. These latter two aspects are of central importance here, for it is demonstrated that the plague's death rates have consistently been under-estimated and that they were in fact much higher, making the disease's long-term effects on history even more profound.OLE J. BENEDICTOW is Professor of History at the University of Oslo.

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