A series of natural disasters in the Orient during the fourteenth century brought about the most devastating period of death and destruction in European history. The epidemic killed one-third of Europe's people over a period of three years, and the resulting social and economic upheaval was on a scale unparalleled in all of recorded history. Synthesizing the records of contemporary chroniclers and the work of later historians, Philip Ziegler offers a critically acclaimed overview of this crucial epoch in a single masterly volume. The Black Death vividly and comprehensively brings to light the full horror of this uniquely catastrophic event that hastened the disintegration of an age.
About the Author
Philip Ziegler was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. A former member of the diplomatic service, he has written biographies of King William IV, Lord Melbourne, Lady Diana Cooper, Lord Mountbatten, King Edward VIII, Harold Wilson, and Osbert Sitwell. His most recent book is Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships. He is at work on the official biography of Prime Minister Edward Heath. Mr. Ziegler lives with his wife in Kensington, London.
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Origins and Nature
It must have been at some time during 1346 that word first reached Europe of strange and tragic happenings far away in the East. Even in this age of easy travel and rapid spread of news, calamities in China tend to be accepted in the Occident with the polite but detached regret reserved for something infinitely remote. In the fourteenth century, Cathay was a never-never-land; unheard of except by the more sophisticated and, even to them, a place of mystery which only a few merchants had visited and about which little was known. No story, however horrific, would seem altogether implausible if it came from such a source; but equally no medieval savant or merchant would have conceived that what happened so far away could have any possible relevance to his own existence. The travellers' tales were received with awed credulity but gave rise to no alarm.
Certainly things seemed to have gone badly wrong. An imposing series of disasters studded the history of the previous years. In 1333 parching drought with consequential famine had ravaged the plains watered by the rivers Kiang and Hoai. Then had come floods in which four hundred thousand were said to have died, as a result of which, presumably, the mountain Tsinchcou 'fell in,' causing great chasms in the earth. In 1334 there was drought in Houkouang and Honan followed by swarms of locusts, famine and pestilence. An earthquake in the mountains of Ki-Ming-Chan formed a lake more than a hundred leagues in circumference. In Tche the dead were believed to number more than five million. Earthquakes and floods continued from 1337 to 1345 ; locusts had never been sodestructive; there was 'subterraneous thunder' in Canton.
But these were mere curtain-raisers for the real calamity. Several contemporary accounts exist of the earliest days of the Black Death, so similar in detail as to suggest that they may well have come from the same source. Almost the only man known to have been at or near the spot, Ibn-Batuta, 'The Traveller,' is disappointingly reticent. An anonymous Flemish cleric, on the other hand, was fortunately unfettered by the restrictions imposed on those who have actually seen what they describe. Basing himself on a letter from a friend in the papal curia at Avignon he recounted how: 'in the East, hard by Greater India, in a certain province, horrors and unheard of tempests overwhelmed the whole province for the space of three days. On the first day there was a rain of frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions, and many venomous beasts of that sort. On the second, thunder was heard, and lightning and sheets of fire fell upon the earth, mingled with hail stones of marvellous size; which slew almost all, from the greatest even to the least. On the third day there fell fire from heaven and stinking smoke, which slew all that were left of men and beasts, and burned up all the cities and towns in those parts. By these tempests the whole province was infected; and it is conjectured that, through the foul blast of wind that came from the South, the whole seashore and surrounding lands were infected, and are waxing more and more poisonous from day to day . . .
This concept of a corrupted atmosphere, visible in the form of mist or smoke, drifting across the world and overwhelming all whom it encountered, was one of the main assumptions on which the physicians of the Middle Ages based their efforts to check the plague. For one chronicler the substance of the cloud was more steam than smoke. Its origin was to be found in a war which bad taken place between the sea and the sun in the Indian Ocean. The waters of the ocean were drawn up as a vapour so corrupted by the multitude of dead and totting fish that the sun was quite unable to consume it nor could it fall again as healthy rain. So it drifted away, an evil, noxious mist, contaminating all it touched. For the Chronicler of Este, however, this cloud of death owed nothing to the sea:
'Between Cathay and Persia there rained a vast rain of fire; falling in flakes like snow and burning up mountains and plains and other lands, with men and women; and then arose vast masses of smoke; and whosoever beheld this died within the space of half a day; and likewise any man or woman who looked upon those who had seen this . . .
By the end of 1346, therefore, it was widely known, at least in the major European seaports, that a plague of unparalleled fury was raging in the East. Fearful rumours were heard of the disease's progress: 'India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered, with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains. In Caramania and Caesarea none were left alive . . .But still it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that the plague might one day strike at Europe.
The most circumstantial account of how the disease made this fatal leap comes from Gabriel de Mussis. At one time, indeed, it was thought that the writer had himself visited Asia Minor and had been a passenger on the ship which carried the plague to Europe.-, A subsequent editor, however, has reluctantly but decisively established that de Mussis, during the critical period, never stirred from his native town of Piacenza."
De Mussis stated that the plague settled in the Tartar lands of Asia Minor in 1346. According to Vernadsky it left eighty-five thousand dead in the Crimea alone. Whether coincidentally or because they made the conventional medieval assumption that some human agency, preferably in the form of an already unpopular minority group, must be responsible for their sufferings, the Tartars decided to attack the Christian merchants in the vicinity. A street brawl, in which one of the locals was killed, seems to have provided the excuse for what was probably a premeditated campaign. The Tartars set on a Genoese trading station in the city of Tana and chased the merchants to their redoubt at Caffa, now Feodosia, a town on the Crimean coast which the Genoese had built and fortified as a base from which to trade with the Eastern hinterland. The Tartar army settled down outside the walls and prepared to bombard the city into submission.
Their plans were disastrously disturbed by the plague which was soon taking heavy toll of the besiegers. 'Fatigued, stupefied and amazed, 'they decided to call off the operation. First, however, they felt it was only fair that the Christians should be given a taste of the agony which the investing force had been suffering. They used their giant catapults to lob over the walls the corpses of the victims in the hope that this would spread the disease within the city. As fast as the rotting bodies arrived in their midst the Genoese carried them through the town and dropped them in...The Black Death. Copyright © by Philip Ziegler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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"Ziegler tells the story with ample but not stifling documentation and with an engaging balance of detached statement and illustration...He builds a most credible, restrained account."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Philip Ziegler's history of the plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century is a great academic piece. He examins many aspects of the era, always prodding for the cause and effect results. His use of the fictional town in the book does not retract from his overall success, but rather enhances the readers enjoyment of it. His conclusions of the effects the plague had on the Church are generally well thought out and correct, but I do take issue with one of his assertions. He states, possibly off the cuff, that the plague in some way made man question transbustantiation of the eurcharist. I'm not 100% sure of this assertion or his ability to prove it. The arguement over transubstantiation seems to really come out of the sixteenth century, when a large body of religiously minded clerics and priests began to question the doctrine. He uses many statistics which give weight to his arguement, but also makes it dry at times. This book is quite useful for academic purposes, but I do not believe everyday history buffs will like the work entirely. Ziegler's greatest accomplishment is how he presents the plague's effect on people, culture, class, and order. The medieval mind was much more complicated, as he points out, and was subject to the terrors of the plague. It was a turning point in history, not because it made revolutions, but because it planted the seeds of questioning and discord. The plague did not lead to the problems which faced Europeans after 1349, but played an instrumental role in those challenges. Overall this is a good book and one that serves well the historical discussion on the plague.
This book by Philip Ziegler is an effort to assess the full scope and magnitude of the effects of the Black Death in Western Europe. Starting in 1346 Ziegler rides the wave of the Black death as it is first rumored in the East, to its arrival in England in 1348. It is based on an extensive collection of primary, some of which are archival, and secondary sources such as municipal, ecclesiastical, and manorial records, and this source base is supplemented by a large body of published studies deploying similar material. The result is a well-documented description that provides a general overview of Western Europe, but focuses mainly on England. In addition the book is laced with intelligent commentary on both the evidence and the weight it can bear, as well as a few ending chapters with two imaginary villages and how the Black Death would have played out in a model medieval village that was poor and on a subsistence level of survival and one of modest income that was self-sustaining. From the beginning chapter Ziegler lays out the popular and most contemporary view about the origins of the Black Death and follows its natural course of spread by overland and coastal trade routes. Ziegler traces is origins, the nature of the disease, and the medical knowledge of the day before he starts his brief overview of Italy, France, and Germany. Not much is said about the rest of Continental Europe before he plunges into England which is broken down region by region. We are then treated to Ziegler's explanation of the impact of the Black Death by using an imaginary model of a medieval village, as well as a few chapters on the consequences the Black Death had on the lives and psyche of the survivors. The books full potential is not realized, however, because not much time is spent on the overall condition of Western Europe, and too many generalization and assumptions are made connecting English villages with villages of other counties. The books main focus is on England, and not much else. Of the seventeen chapters only six deal with life outside of England. I found the title a bit misleading, and the chapters with the imaginary village a bit assuming and too fictitious. However well taken his cautions, this technique nevertheless leaves the reader uncertain about what, if anything, is to be learned from just the English perspective. Is this book about the Black Death or just the Black Death in England? This is not to deny the book's usefulness, for it is replete with valuable information and a very organized bibliography section. The chapters are thoughtful, well planned, and organized. Though he doesn't spend too much time on other countries apart from England, Ziegler does point out one main difference and challenge that each country dealt with, and this can give you some very useful ideas about what questions need to be asked about the effects on each country and why each reacted differently. Ziegler's Anglo-bias shows up on pages 132-134 but these can be easily overlooked. What this book lacks in depth it makes up for in rich bibliographic information, and this particular copy has a post-script added by the author as he tackles criticism level at him by academia. In the end, however, we are given an intellectual journey into medieval life in England during the fourteenth-century. This book is great for the non-historian, but as a student of history one can only gauge this books worth as a portal or jumping-off point to deeper and more thought provoking books. The real gem of this book is found in its chapter notes and bibliography. I found the organization of Ziegler's notes and bibliographic information to be or par with a closer look at the Black Death and fourteenth-century Europe. Ziegler freely admits that he is not a medieval historian, but argues that his imaginary village is not without merit, and I tend to agree that this approach although not historically valid does offer a historical perspec
This book is very engaging and does not pretend to be anything it is not. Simply put, it's a conglomeration of research about the topic with a little conjecture by the author.
I am currently a high school student and I read this book for a research project; however, I would not recommend this book to others. The way Ziegler, the author, presents the information is unorganized and I strongly dislike his choice of words. Also, there is a large amount of unimportant information that I believe is unnecessary. In addition, there is a large amount of repetition throughout the book that makes it boring. Ziegler's transitions from one idea to another is one more aspect of the book that I did not enjoy. He doesn't explain how two ideas are connected with each other, which makes the information confusing to the reader. Also, when a new idea is presented it is not explained well, therefore I was unaware of what was happening. Another problem that If found throughout the book, is that Ziegler discusses contradicting ideas without explaining which one is true and which one is false. However, an aspect of the book that I did enjoy is that this book contains a fair amount of information that I was unable to find on the internet. Also, Ziegler discusses the opinions and ideas of other writers and scientists which provides the reader an abundance of opinions and facts. Overall, this book is confusing, unappealing, and boring due to the way Ziegler discusses and organizes the information; therefore I would not recommend this book to others.