07 September 2012

Imprint Friday: The Great Mortality by John Kelly

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Harper Perennial. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Today I'm doing something a little bit different. Although John Kelly's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time was published as a Harper Perennial paperback edition in 2005, I'm featuring it as part of Imprint Friday because the eBook edition was released only last month.

Assuming you need no introduction to the Black Death, which, in just a few years, killed up to 60 percent of people in Europe alone, let's jump right to the publisher's summary.

La moria grandissima began its terrible journey across the European and Asian continents in 1347, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake. Five years later, twenty-five million people were dead, felled by the scourge that would come to be called the Black Death. The Great Mortality is the extraordinary epic account of the worst natural disaster in European history--a drama of courage, cowardice, misery, madness, and sacrifice that brilliantly illuminates humankind's darkest days when an old world ended and a new world was born.
Like most people who have an interest in medieval history and culture, I have always been fascinated with the plague and how it affected not only Europe but also what is now the UK, Scandinavia, and Russia. As author John Kelly points out, scrutiny of the 14th-century pandemic has recently increased thanks to modern diseases, such as AIDS and SARS, that seem to spread quickly and have a high mortality rate.

In fact, Kelly started researching the plague with the idea of writing about future disease scenarios, but he ended up being fascinated with the history. Kelly took a multipronged approach to his account, discussing politics, economics, the environment, religion, and travel; introducing firsthand reactions as well as literary descriptions; and relying on histories, medical research, and archaeology. Although such a thorough story involves a little repetition and some minor tangents, all in all, The Great Mortality is accessible to the layperson and unforgettable.

Among the things that hit me were how quickly a city could be decimated as well as the vast number of dead. Here is a quote from Boccaccio, who is describing Florence:
"Many dropped dead in the open streets by day and night, . . . whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors' attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means. And what with these and the others who were dying all over the city, bodies were here, there and everywhere." (p. 106)
In England, the mortality rate for two years was about 50 percent; that's every other person. It's almost impossible to grasp.

Jews were particularly hit hard, but not necessarily from the Black Death. Instead, they were blamed for the disease and many were burned to death:
In Nordhausen, Landgrave Frederick of Thuringia-Meisen also had to steel the weak. "For the praise and honor of God and benefit of Christianity," the landgrave admonished a wavering city council, burn the Jews immediately. (p. 257)
According to some sources, within one year all the Jews "between Cologne and Austria" had been burned. All to no avail, of course, as the plague continued to kill Christian clerics and peasants alike.

Kelly also discusses some of the theories that explain the enormity and the virulence of the plague. He notes that the early 1300s was a time of major environmental change, and millions were starving thanks to the cold and rainy summers. In such a weakened state, many people simply had no physical reserves to fight the disease.

Finally, The Great Mortality ends by looking at the long-lasting changes that came out of the plague. As one would expect, the demographic structure of the Old World had been significantly altered by the Black Death, and with it there were changes in fertility rates and in the age at which people married and started families. The plague also brought about new technologies, new economic opportunities, and new sociocultural divisions throughout the affected areas.

John Kelly's The Great Mortality lives up to its subtitle of "an Intimate History" by focusing on how the Black Death affected individuals, as recorded by numerous eyewitness accounts. This readable and vivid history of the plague is sure to leave a indelible impression.

Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note posted here on June 18, 2010. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. And don't miss the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.

The Great Mortality at an Indie
The Great Mortality at Powell's
The Great Mortality at Book Depository
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Published by HarperCollins / Harper Perennial ebook edition, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780060006938 (paperback), 9780062243218 (eBook)


Uomo di Speranza 9/7/12, 6:25 AM  

The black death is so fascinating because it helped get Europe out of the Middle Ages; therefore, people don't know whether to call it a positive or negative phenomenon. It's excellent to have such a thoroughly researched account to help us decide.

bermudaonion 9/7/12, 6:49 AM  

I bet my mother would love this book!

Charlie 9/7/12, 1:52 PM  

This sounds fascinating! I love medieval history but the Black Death is something I only know the basics of. A book on it would be a rather useful read.

caite 9/7/12, 4:44 PM  

this is a book my brother would love! "Christmas is coming, the Goose is getting fat..."

it is so hard to wrap ones head around that...60% of Europe dead...

Julie P. 9/7/12, 8:15 PM  

Hmmmm. That's probably a pretty interesting book. I read a novel about this time period that I loved.

Jessica 9/7/12, 10:35 PM  

I read that when it came out - it is absolutely riveting.

mel u 9/10/12, 12:34 AM  

I read and Posted on Kelly's latest book, on the Irish Famines of the 1800s, The Graves are Walking. I thought it was a brilliant beautifully written book. I hope to read his book on the black death one day. Great post

Daryl 9/10/12, 8:29 AM  

i have to admit that the plague has always fascinated me .. from the move Panic in the Streets to the wonderful Doomsday Book by Connie Willis so this sounds very interesting .. thanks

Care 9/10/12, 8:30 PM  

yowza. Sounds particularly scary. and it would be just as awful to survive and clean up the mess, wouldn't it?

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