The Black Death and the Transformation of the Westby David Herlihy
The Black Death was the great watershed in medieval history. In this compact book, David Herlihy makes bold yet subtle and subversive inquiries that challenge historical thinking about this disastrous period. As in a finely tuned detective story, he upturns intriguing bits of epidemiological evidence. And, looking beyond the view of the Black Death as unmitigated… See more details below
The Black Death was the great watershed in medieval history. In this compact book, David Herlihy makes bold yet subtle and subversive inquiries that challenge historical thinking about this disastrous period. As in a finely tuned detective story, he upturns intriguing bits of epidemiological evidence. And, looking beyond the view of the Black Death as unmitigated catastrophe, Herlihy sees in it the birth of technological advance as societies struggled to create labor-saving devices in the wake of population losses. New evidence for the plague's role in the establishment of universities, the spread of Christianity, the dissemination of vernacular cultures, and even the rise of nationalism demonstrates that this cataclysmic event marked a true turning point in history.
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.
Herlihy proposed that the Black Death led to "the transformation of the West" and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Briefly and lucidly, Herlihy argued that Europe was...locked into Malthusian stasis, with a population unable to improve its standard of living and possessed of a set of unchanging and stagnating institutions. The Black Death was to shake Europe out of its immobile lethargy and to initiate processes of renewal...Samuel Cohn's succinct introduction provides an excellent commentary on Herlihy's theses.
Focusing on the Black Death which reduced the population in some European cities by 80 percent, Herlihy draws some powerful parallels between the plague and AIDS...His argument is a provocative one which will lead other historians to re-examine not only the period of the Black Death but the foundations of medieval and modern medicine.
Herlihy died in 1991, leaving these 1985 lectures among his unpublished papers. In them, he raises questions about the impact of the black death on everyday society, agrarian practices, the use of inventions, travel, and medical theory and practice. Because of their provocative ideas and new ways of looking at older assumptions, they are highly worthy of publication.
- Harvard University Press
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What People are saying about this
Steven Epstein, University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe
Thomas Kuehn, author of Law, Family, and Women
William M. Bowsky, University of California, Davis, author of A Medieval Italian Commune
Meet the Author
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.
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