The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death, Paperback

The Great Mortality : An Intimate History of the Black Death Paperback

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


A compelling history of the Black Death that scoured Europe in the mid 14th-century killing twenty-five million people.

It was one of the worst human disasters in history. 'The bodies were sparsely covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured them!And believing it to be the end of the world, no one wept for the dead, for all expected to die.' Agnolo di Turo, Siena, 1348 In just over a thousand days from 1347 to 1351 the 'Black Death' travelled across medieval Europe killing thirty per cent of its population.

It was a catastrophe that touched the lives of every individual on the continent.

The deadly Y. Pestis virus entered Europe in October 1347 by Genoese galley at Messina, Sicily.

In the spring of 1348 it was devastating the cities of central Italy, by June 1348 it had reached France and Spain, and by August England.

At St Mary's, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, an anonymous hand carved the following inscription for 1349: 'Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.' According to the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, the plague of 1347-51 is the second worst catastrophe in recorded history. Only World War II produced more death, physical damage, and emotional suffering.

Defence analysts use it as the measure of thermonuclear war -- in geographical extent, abruptness and casualties. In 'The Great Mortality' John Kelly retraces the journey of the Black Death using original source material -- diary fragments, letters and manuscripts.

It is the devastating portrait of a continent gripped by an epidemic, but also a very personal story, narrated by the individuals whose lives were touched by it.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: European history
  • ISBN: 9780007150700



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An extremely readable book that covers the story of “The Great Mortality”, more commonly known these days as the “Black Death”—Europe’s first major encounter with the plague.The plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, which is epizootic in various rodent populations, including marmots and, of course, rats. Y. pestis spreads to humans only when its chosen hosts die, often as the result of an environmental disruption such as earthquakes, floods, famines, and so forth.Kelly traces the plague back to its reservoirs in China, Africa, and the Russian steppes, then through remote European trading posts along the Europe-to-China trading routes to the Black Sea, then its transmission via ship to various European ports, where it made its way inland.The Great Mortality (mid-1300s) was only the first wave of plague to hit Europe, but it was the most devastating, causing death rates of between 30 and 60 percent, with some regions suffering even greater losses. Europe’s population was dramatically cut back, changing the balance of power between surviving peasants, whose labor was now much more valuable, and nobles, who found themselves forced to pay higher prices for labor and goods.Kelly also covers the controversy over whether the Black Death was actually caused by the plague bacterium Y. pestis or was instead caused by some other, (possibly extinct) more virile disease. (He sides with Y. pestis.)He also covers the seemingly endless pogroms directed against Jews in almost every part of Europe, despite directives ordering people to let them be from local authorities and the reigning Pope.Anyone interested in European history, infectious diseases, or the general horror that is humanity will get a lot out of Kelly’s The Great Mortality.