Description - The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy
It ravaged a continent for over a century, killed millions of people and decimated economies. The Black Death is considered by many to have been the great watershed in medieval history. In this book the author challenges historical thinking about this disastrous period. He asks was the Black Death bubonic plague? Nobody ever mentions rats dying in large numbers. Were buboes the main symptoms? Doctors of the day and evidence from the lives of saints describe "freckles" as often as buboes. Looking beyond the view of the Black Death as unmitigated catastrophe, the author sees in it the birth of technological advance as societies struggle to create labour-saving devices in the wake of population losses. Medieval Europe had reached a demographic impasse. It was the precipitous drop in population that spurred the changes that propelled Europe into the modern era. Population controls shifted from natural checks to preventative measures, including new inheritance practices, revised marriage customs and birth control.
New evidence for the plague's role in the establishment of universities, spread of Christianity, dissemination of vernacular cultures and even the rise of nationalism demonstrates that this cataclysmic event marked a true turning point in history.
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(210mm x 140mm x 9mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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Book Reviews - The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy
US Kirkus Review »
Bold, novel theories, sure to be controversial, about the medeval pandemic known as the Black Death, by late Brown University historian Herlihy. The European pestilence (dubbed the Black Death centuries later by northern European scholars) began in 1348 and ravaged the continent in intermittent waves for a century. In that time it killed millions; Herlihy estimates that in villages as far apart as England and Italy populations were reduced by as much as 70 or 80 percent. It is regarded as one of European history's watershed events. While not disputing that, Herlihy revisits much of the conventional wisdom about the demographic, cultural, and even medical impact of the plague. Indeed, he questions whether the Black Death even was plague: He notes that medieval chroniclers did not mention epizootics (mass deaths of rats or other rodents, which are a necessary precursor to plague) and did mention lenticulae or pustules or boils over the victims' bodies, which is not characteristic of plague. Herlihy observes that the illness showed some signs of bubonic plague, some of anthrax, and some of tuberculosis, and speculates that perhaps several diseases "sometimes worked together synergistically to produce the staggering mortalities." Herlihy sees Europe before the Black Death as engaged in a "Malthusian deadlock" in which a stable population devoted most of its energy to production of food and subsistence goods. The precipitous population decline occasioned by the Black Death compelled Europe to devise labor-saving technologies that transformed the economy. In more controversial theories, Herlihy argues from the increased use of Christian given names that the Black Death caused the Christianization of what had formerly been a pagan society with a Christian veneer, and contends that in the wake of the pestilence Europeans turned to preventive measures such as birth control to check explosive population growth. A stimulating discussion of some rarely considered aspects of one of history's turning points. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - David Herlihy
David Herlihy (d. 1991) was Barnaby Conrad and Mary Critchfield Keeney Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow. Among his books are The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death and Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in the Italian Renaissance.