The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S. Series)

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Overview

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 ...

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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
“John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of [The Black Death].”
Nelson DeMille
“A fascinating account of the plague. A frightening reminder of what could happen today.”
Richard Rhodes
“Powerful, rich, moving, humane, and full of important lessons for an age when weapons of mass destruction are loose.”
Richard Preston
“Rich and evocative…written in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman, I couldn’t stop reading this work of brilliance and wisdom.”
Jack Weatherford
“Written with a keen eye for the details of the past, it might also be a warning about our future.”
Charleston Post & Courier
“THE GREAT MORTALITY is a chilling account of a global siege, public pits, death-carts, silent villages and empty streets.”
Booklist
"This sweeping, viscerally exciting book contributes to a literature of perpetual fascination."
Houston Chronicle
“Stunning. The Great Mortality [is endowed with] the sheer immediacy ancient history yields to only a few.”
The Guardian
“A compellingly vivid account.”
Tampa Tribune
“A compelling and bone-chilling account.”
Detroit Free Press
"Splendidly written. Kelly has written a popular history based on the best scholarship available, and written it very well indeed."
New York Times Book Review
“THE GREAT MORTALITY skillfully draws on eyewitness accounts to construct a journal of the plague years.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“...splendidly written...”
Booklist (starred review)
“This sweeping, viscerally exciting book contributes to a literature of perpetual fascination.”
Detroit Free Press (**** 4 out of 4 stars)
“Splendidly written. Kelly has written a popular history based on the best scholarship available, and written it very well indeed.”
Jonathan Yardley
The Great Mortality is an admirable work of popular history, a genre too often derided by scholars. Kelly summarizes and interprets previous scholarship in a wholly accessible way, and his research in primary sources gives the book its powerful human element.
— The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
This was Europe in the 1340's, the decade of the advent of the Black Death, and in his harrowing new book, The Great Mortality, John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of that plague … this volume's chief interest lies in its overview and synthesis of more academic studies and Mr. Kelly's ability to turn his research into an emotionally accessible narrative, animated by wrenchingly vivid tableaus and alarming first-hand witness accounts - accounts that give the reader an intimate sense of day-to-day life in medieval Europe and the terrible ways in which the Black Death disrupted it.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The Black Death raced across Europe from the 1340s to the early 1350s, killing a third of the population. Drawing on recent research as well as firsthand accounts, veteran author Kelly (Three on the Edge, etc.) describes how infected rats, brought by Genoese trading ships returning from the East and docked in Sicily, carried fleas that spread the disease when they bit humans. Two types of plague seem to have predominated: bubonic plague, characterized by swollen lymph nodes and the bubo, a type of boil; and pneumonic plague, characterized by lung infection and spitting blood. Those stricken with plague died quickly. Survivors often attempted to flee, but the plague was so widespread that there was virtually no escape from infection. Kelly recounts the varied reactions to the plague. The citizens of Venice, for example, forged a civic response to the crisis, while Avignon fell apart. The author details the emergence of Flagellants, unruly gangs who believed the plague was a punishment from God and roamed the countryside flogging themselves as a penance. Rounding up and burning Jews, whom they blamed for the plague, the Flagellants also sparked widespread anti-Semitism. This is an excellent overview, accessible and engrossing. Agent, Ellen Levine. (Feb. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A ground-level illustration of how the plague ravaged Europe. For his tenth book, science writer Kelly (Three on the Edge, 1999, etc.) delivers a cultural history of the Black Death based on accounts left by those who witnessed the greatest natural disaster in human history. Spawned somewhere on the steppes of Central Asia, the plague arrived in Europe in 1347, when a Genoese ship carried it to Sicily from a trading post on the Black Sea. Over the next four years, at a time when, as the author notes, "nothing moved faster than the fastest horse," the disease spread through the entire continent. Eventually, it claimed 25 million lives, one third of the European population. A thermonuclear war would be an equivalent disaster by today's standards, Kelly avers. Much of the narrative depends on the reminiscences of monks, doctors, and other literate people who buried corpses or cared for the sick. As a result, the author has plenty of anecdotes. Common scenes include dogs and children running naked, dirty, and wild through the streets of an empty village, their masters and parents dead; Jews burnt at the stake, scapegoats in a paranoid Christian world; and physicians at the University of Paris consulting the stars to divine cures. These tales give the author opportunities to show Europeans-filthy, malnourished, living in densely packed cities-as easy targets for rats and their plague-bearing fleas. They also allow him to ramble. Kelly has a tendency to lose the trail of the disease in favor of tangents about this or that king, pope, or battle. He returns to his topic only when he shifts to a different country or city in a new chapter, giving the book a haphazard feel. Remarkably, the storyends on a hopeful note. After so many perished, Europe was forced to develop new forms of technology to make up for the labor shortage, laying the groundwork for the modern era. Occasionally unfocused, but redeems itself by putting a vivid, human face on an unimaginable nightmare. Agent: Ellen Levine/Levine Greenberg Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060006938
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/31/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 168,016
  • Product dimensions: 7.98 (w) x 5.30 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

John Kelly, who holds a graduate degree in European history, is the author and coauthor of ten books on science, medicine, and human behavior, including Three on the Edge, which Publishers Weekly called the work of "an expert storyteller." He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Oimmeddam 1
Ch. 2 "They are monsters, not men" 29
Ch. 3 The day before The Day of the Dead 53
Ch. 4 Sicilian Autumn 79
Ch. 5 Villani's last sentence 101
Ch. 6 The curse of the grand master 127
Ch. 7 The new Galenism 163
Ch. 8 "Days of death without sorrow" 183
Ch. 9 Heads to the West, feet to the East 209
Ch. 10 God's first love 231
Ch. 11 "O ye of little faith" 259
Ch. 12 "Only the end of the beginning" 273
Afterword : the plague deniers 295
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First Chapter

The Great Mortality
An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time

Chapter One

Oimmeddam

Feodosiya sits on the eastern coast of the crimea, a rectangular spit of land where the Eurasian steppe stops to dip its toe into the Black Sea. Today the city is a rusty wasteland of post-Soviet decay. But in the Middle Ages, when Feodosiya was called Caffa and a Genoese proconsul sat in a white palace above the harbor, the city was one of the fastest-growing ports in the medieval world. In 1266, when the Genoese first arrived in southern Russia, Caffa was a primitive fishing village tucked away far from the eyes of God and man on the dark side of the Crimea -- a collection of windswept lean-tos set between an empty sea and a ring of low-rising hills. Eighty years later, seventy thousand to eighty thousand people coursed through Caffa's narrow streets, and a dozen different tongues echoed through its noisy markets. Thrusting church spires and towers crowded the busy skyline, while across the bustling town docks flowed Merdacaxi silks from Central Asia, sturgeon from the Don, slaves from the Ukraine, and timber and furs from the great Russian forests to the north. Surveying Caffa in 1340, a Muslim visitor declared it a handsome town of "beautiful markets with a worthy port in which I saw two hundred ships big and small."

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Genoese willed Caffa into existence, but not a large exaggeration. No city-state bestrode the age of city-states with a more operatic sense of destiny -- none possessed a more fervent desire to cut a bella figura in the world -- than Genoa. The city's galleys could be found in every port from London to the Black Sea, its merchants in every trading center from Aleppo (Syria) to Peking. The invincible courage and extraordinary seamanship of the Genoese mariner was legendary. Long before Christopher Columbus, there were the Vivaldi brothers, Ugolino and Vadino, who fell off the face of the earth laughing at death as they searched for a sea route to India. Venice, Genoa's great rival, might carp that she was "a city of sea without fish, ... men without faith, and women without shame," but Genoese grandeur was impervious to such insults. In Caffa, Genoa built a monument to itself. The port's sunlit piazzas and fine stone houses, the lovely women who walked along its quays with the brocades of Persia on their backs and the perfumes of Arabia gracing their skin, were monuments to Genoese wealth, virtue, piety, and imperial glory.

As an Italian poet of the time noted,
And so many are the Genoese
And so spread ... throughout the world
That wherever one goes and stays
He makes another Genoa there.

Caffa's meteoric rise to international prominence also owed something to geography and economics. Between 1250 and 1350 the medieval world experienced an early burst of globalization, and Caffa, located at the southeastern edge of European Russia, was perfectly situated to exploit the new global economy. To the north, through a belt of dense forest, lay the most magnificent land route in the medieval world, the Eurasian steppe, a great green ribbon of rolling prairie, swaying high grass, and big sky that could deliver a traveler from the Crimea to China in eight to twelve months. To the west lay the teeming port of Constantinople, wealthiest city in Christendom, and beyond Constantinople, the slave markets of the Levant, where big-boned, blond Ukrainians fetched a handsome price at auction. Farther west lay Europe, where the tangy spices of Ceylon and Java and the sparkling diamonds of Golconda were in great demand. And between these great poles of the medieval world lay Caffa, with its "worthy port" and phalanx of mighty Russian rivers: the Volga and Don immediately to the east, the Dnieper to the west. In the first eight decades of Genoese rule the former fishing village doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size. Then the population quadrupled a second, third, and fourth time; new neighborhoods and churches sprang up; six thousand new houses rose inside the city, and then an additional eleven thousand in the muddy flats beyond the town walls. Every year more ships arrived, and more fish and slaves and timber flowed across Caffa's wharves. On a fine spring evening in 1340, one can imagine the Genoese proconsul standing on his balcony, surveying the tall-masted ships bobbing on a twilight tide in the harbor, and thinking that Caffa would go on growing forever, that nothing would ever change, except that the city would grow ever bigger and wealthier. That dream, of course, was as fantastic a fairy tale in the fourteenth century as it is today. Explosive growth -- and human hubris -- always come with a price.

Before the arrival of the Genoese, Caffa's vulnerability to ecological disaster extended no farther than the few thousand meters of the Black Sea its fishermen fished and the half moon of sullen, windswept hills behind the city. By 1340 trade routes linked the port to places half a world away -- places even the Genoese knew little about -- and in some of the places strange and terrible things were happening. In the 1330s there were reports of tremendous environmental upheaval in China. Canton and Houkouang were said to have been lashed by cycles of torrential rain and parching drought, and in Honan mile-long swarms of locusts were reported to have blacked out the sun. Legend also has it that in this period, the earth under China gave way and whole villages disappeared into fissures and cracks in the ground. An earthquake is reported to have swallowed part of a city, Kingsai, then a mountain, Tsincheou, and in the mountains of Ki-ming-chan, to have torn open a hole large enough to create a new "lake a hundred leagues long." In Tche, it was said that 5 million people were killed in the upheavals. On the coast of the South China Sea, the ominous rumble of "subterranean thunder" was heard ...

The Great Mortality
An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time
. Copyright © by John Kelly. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 2, 2012

    I have always been interested in the Bubonic Plague. Vast number

    I have always been interested in the Bubonic Plague. Vast numbers of individuals were brutally killed by an organism so minuscule, that they had no idea it was murdering their friends and family. The bacteria meant for rats, Yersinia pestis, altered the course of human history. It became one of the first known forms of biological warfare, when during times of war, the dead victims of the plague were catapulted into the enemies territory in order to infect the soldiers. Children’s nursery rhymes, such as Ring Around the Rosie, were also created during this time. Like everything in history this catastrophic event is still influencing our society centuries later. John Kelly did an incredible job explaining the details of the Black Plague. He was able to tell the facts while also keeping the reader entertained by using first hand accounts of the people who lived through it. The compilation of their writings tell an unimaginable tale.
    Learning about the Black Death helps me to think of my own studies on viruses. While we can now cure most viruses with antibiotics, we are rapidly coming to a time where they have resistant strains. Viruses are as well eluding a cure in a way that is terrifying. If like the people of the middle ages, we do not fully understand what is happening if an outbreak erupts, then we will most likely suffer the same fate they did and lose over half our population. It is a perspective that makes me wonder at the power of nature. Through my studies, I hope to help rid the world of these elusive and ever changing silent killers once and for all.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Morbid, Gross, Enthralling and Fascinating

    Kelly spares no detail throughout the entire book. His side stories cover the rich, the poor, the most terrible sort of people and villians, and the Mother Theresa's of the plague. Its rarely dry, and hard to put down- yet if you do, it can be hard to pick up again for the shere fact that being constantly confronted with that much human suffering is difficult. Its hard to imagine that much terror at a namesless death, and its something we fear so much in our own time. Kelly paints a portrait of the plague experience, and you are truly implanted into that callous world. You will learn so much by reading this book, about life in that time, how the plague was truly spread, and so much about human nature.

    I would recommend this book to
    -tragedians -historians -people interested in current affairs -teachers -pschologists

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    All the gory details!

    I'm on chapter 2, but the introduction alone was fascinating. Finally a entertaining & intellectual recollection of the Great Death.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2007

    A reviewer

    Not only is this book a thorough history of the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, it is extremely readable. I couldn't put it down, and I didn't really expect that from a book about such a serious topic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2006

    Highly recommended

    An astonishing book. One of the best books I have ever read..could not put it down. Extremely readable. Never a dull moment.

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    Posted July 29, 2009

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    Posted November 2, 2012

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    Posted December 11, 2008

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    Posted January 31, 2009

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