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

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

by John Kelly


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060006938
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/31/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 183,137
Product dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.96(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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

Chapter One


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.

What People are Saying About This

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.”

Michiko Kakutani

“John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of [The Black Death].”

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Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S. Series) 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
JamiC More than 1 year ago
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.
PiggityPig More than 1 year ago
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
Seasons-of-Autumn More than 1 year ago
I'm on chapter 2, but the introduction alone was fascinating. Finally a entertaining & intellectual recollection of the Great Death.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An astonishing book. One of the best books I have ever read..could not put it down. Extremely readable. Never a dull moment.
Kathryn.Roach on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. Not difficult or grim.
williwhy on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Terrific summary of the black plague and its impact on history. Not strictly historical, as the author provides his imaginings about what might have happened or how individuals may have behaved. These sometimes add, and sometimes distract, from the narrative. Weaves in a number of diverse literatures to explain the disease and it's travels.
lyzadanger on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Kelly's sweeping popular look at the cause, course and story of the Black Death doesn't break new academic ground so much as it filters and beautifies the centuries of discoveries by plague scholars. Through evocative description and very human narrative, Kelly builds an immediacy of the horrendous experience: bursting buboes, violent, bloody vomiting and, at times, the near extinction of towns and cities, the love and chaos of family members and the clergy.The first third of the book is nothing short of fascinating as Kelly winds back the clock and the geography of the origins of Y. pestis, the plague bacteria. It starts in the high steppes of central Asia, among lands and peoples he describes with enough care and detail that one feels almost present in the high grasses with the lurching, infectious "tarabagans," marmot-like rodents that may have been the source of the scourge.We as readers get to watch, as a terrified audience, as Kelly brings the "death and death and death" (so described by Elizabethan playwright John Ford) barreling down on western Europe. Individual stories: a physician, Petrarch, a Roman usurper, a reeve, royals--these tragedies unfold nuanced and detailed. Occasional rollicking asides are so fun that one hardly notices the digressions.Towards the last third of the book, some of the focus is lost, or perhaps the structure (following the plague's geographic sweeps, generally chronologically) has become a bit too fixed. Kelly's explanation of the dreadful anti-semitic pogroms carried out by misled, angry Christians are interesting (and important) as part of the plague's tragedy, but a 20-page full history of Jewish persecution seemed a bit long-winded. Occasionally he repeats himself, telling snippets of the same story multiple times--it's surprising that a sharp-eyed editor didn't pick those out.All in all, Kelly isn't posing a new thesis as to the cause or havoc of the Black Death. What he does, and does well, is synthesize the story into something approachable by all. A very enjoyable read.
npryzbul on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Excellent study of the bubonic plague that ravaged the medieval world during the mid-14th century. Kelly traces the lineage of the disease, its origins and the way it traveled all over the known world. Beginning in Asia and making its way to Italy, Kelly shows its progression through Europe chapter by chapter, discussing how the plague affected politics, economics and social patterns and traditions. Kelly gives an excellent overview of the devestation the Black Death had on the population, and how it changed the world.
kipp15 on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Good description of the plague's travel through the old world, All the gorey details. Explores ordinary lives.
CBJames on LibraryThing 29 days ago
In the bonus section of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time author John Kelly discusses three people who brought the period of Europe's Black Death to life for him. The first is Jacme De Podio, a peasant from Marseille. After Jacme's son, grand-daughter and daughter-in-law all died from the plague, he decided he should inherit his daughter-in-law's estate. To do so he had to find two witnesses who would swear out in court that she had died. Jacme spent two years searching the plague ravished city of Marseille, finally found the witnesses he needed and inherited the estate. Carpe Diem.The second was Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily. One of the major celebrities of 14th century Europe, Queen Joanna stood accused of murdering her husband so she could marry her lover. Her trial in the Papal court at Avignon was the must see event of the day, drawing a crowd from every corner of the continent in spite of the plague that ravaged the land. She was found innocent, though later her former in-laws invaded her kingdom forcing her to flee to Provence where she was reuinted with her lover. The third is Agnolo di Tura called Agnolo the Fat. Agnolo, a hard-working man who rose from the lower classes to the upper middle class prior to the plague, wrote one of the better chronicles of the Black Death which sums up the plagues full horror, "And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the fat, buried my wife and five children with my own hands."The Black Death, called the Great Mortality by those who lived through it, was the greatest tragedy ever to befall Europe. (Whether or not its death toll was worse than that of World War II depends in part on how you manipulate the statistics.) While it brought about an end to the lives of millions, the Black Death changed the course of European history and laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.Mr. Kelly's book is a thorough and entertaining account of the Black Death from its origins to its after effects. While he presents the historical facts and the scientific details along with the numbers needed to understand the profound effects the Black Death had, Mr. Kelly's focus on the individual people of the time brings the story home as it brings the story to life. The story of the Black Death is full of scoundrals, heroes and everyone in between. Agnolo di Tura will be familiar to anyone who remembers what they studied in middle school, but others, like Queen Joanna of Naples have been kept out of the history books for one reason or another. Hers is one of many fascinating stories in The Great Mortality.The Great Mortality is a history book for both lovers and non-lovers of history. While there is enough detail in The Great Mortality to answer all but the most obscure questions anyone might have about the Black Death, the book never becomes lost in arcane information or bogged down in academic language. The story of The Great Mortality is always interesting, often moving, and at times inspiring. That all of Agnolo di Tura's children died moves the reader, but so does the knowledge that he carried on in spite of this. In fact, he remarried and became successful enough to complain about his worker's demands for higher wages.
Meggo on LibraryThing 29 days ago
An interesting synthesis of the research on the Black Death that swept through Europe and Asia in the 1300s and devastated the world economy and society. Ultimately Kelly's conclusions are not earth-shattering, but the book is an accessible, scholarly read. For those of you who enjoy books on the plague, or history, this is recommended.
mattrutherford on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Lack of usable footnotes bothered me, as did the morphing of "Y. pestis" into a sentient being.
SilverDragon on LibraryThing 5 months ago
When studying history it's easy to get bogged down in statistics and forget that this happened to real people. I appreciated that the author put the history into context. One realizes that not much has changed since the time of the Black Death (human nature, I mean). While the subject is depressing, it is presented in such a way that it is almost a crime to enjoy it as much as I did.
jmatson on LibraryThing 5 months ago
The finest book written on the Black Plague of the 14th century as far as I'm aware of.Great read.
john257hopper on LibraryThing 5 months ago
On the plus side, this was an interesting and obviously well researched history of the Black Death, being particularly strong on the scientific background and origins of the plague bacillus. On the minus side, the author¿s journalistic use of overly colourful and sometimes anachronistic phrases and putting imaginary words and actions into the mouths and hands of persons grated rather on me. Also in places I felt he digressed a little too far from the main narrative into interesting but not directly relevant (at least not in so much detail) historical developments. Overall though, well worth reading.
podperson on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Great and incisive writing. How European humanity, ignorant, fearful, intolerant struggled through what was probably histories most horrific plague to emerge more than decimated, but ironically better for the experience. There were plenty of heros and villains. Doctors who cared for plague victims without concern for their own lives, humble town clerks who kept the records straight, priests who refused to give last rites, anti-semites who blamed the plague on the Jews, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers who abandoned their family when they became plague victims.But, Europe did survive superstitious and medically backwards as it was. There were always those few who did what had to be done to keep society from falling apart. How society survived the plague has been used as model for the aftermath of thermonuclear war. This book gives me faith that humanity will muddle through despite the cowardice and ignorance of its current leadership.
dtgwynn on LibraryThing 5 months ago
In The Great Mortality, John Kelly attempts to use only comtemporary accounts of the Plague outbreaks of the mid-14th century. It gives an awful glimpse of the effects the disease had on all levels of society, and how Europe was radically changed by this event. I found it to be a very easy read and very imformative.
raluke on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Moderately well written but I was left feeling unsatisfied. In several instances I thought the author was just skimming the surface. There are some unnecessary shots taken at Catholicism and it is worth noting that the mortality rate among Catholic clergy was much greater than that of the general population. This would indicate that instead of "running away", Catholic priests were staying and ministering to the sick. But the subject of the plague is so morbidly interesting to me that I end up finishing everything I've read on the subject. I would suggest checking this book out of the library, though, instead of buying it.
AngelaG86 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Kelly explains the plague in incredible detail, I learned more about the plague from this book than any other reading I've done on the subject.
Eurydice on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Fascinating and exhaustively researched. Kelly handles the inherent controversy over death tolls, and the more recent arguments over the actual causes of the Black Death and its difference from most later outbreaks with an openness and even-handedness that never sacrifices his own opinion. As a novice in this area, I particularly appreciate the backgrounding on issues like the Great Famine, the apparent role of climate change or climactic upheaval, medieval medical practice and theory, and so on. - Not to mention illuminating details from much more recent history. However, I did feel the reviews I'd read complaining that the book lost itself (or its readers) in the attempt to cover the multiplicity of 'small Italian towns' were just. There are also moments when the anthropomorphic description of the plague - not, after all, a 'sentient being', however opportunistic - seem too much. Effectiveness lapses into indulgence and inaccuracy. Though clearly it was done in the pursuit of readability, a goal Kelly attained - the downside, perhaps, of the quick strokes of characterization that enliven much of the book - it is a fault of which, having enjoyed The Great Mortality and benefitted from its many accuracies, I can scarcely complain.In one favorite moment, Kelly describes Alexandre Yersin, the doctor who discovered the pathogen that causes plague, during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s, and his rival: "...the worldwide race narrowed down to one city, Hong Kong, and two young men, each a surrogate for the two great microbiologists of the Victorian age, the Frenchman Louis Pasteur, and the German Robert Koch. Koch's surrogate, a former student named Shibasaburo Kitasato, was a heavyset, ambitious young man who wore a starched wing-tip collar even in the sultry Hong Kong heat and enjoyed the seemingly unbeatable advantages of modern equipment, a large staff, and a devious mind. Pasteur's surrogate was the moony Yersin, a Somerset Maugham-ish figure, who gave up a life of privilige in the West for Higher Truth in the East. In a film about the race to identify Y. pestis, Leslie Howard would have played Yersin." (Yes, I'm a Leslie Howard fan; probably a rare thing at my age. Beautifully as they paired, I enjoy Maugham much less, of the two.)My thanks to sarradee, whose review helped decide the purchase for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gives you a complete historic view of the plague, the time period, and the people of the era. Defintlenty recommend.
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