The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History

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Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge/Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xvi; 433.

We already owe six previous volumes on the plague to Benedictow, Professor of History at Oslo University. The thoroughness and precision of his research are admirable, as shown in this 2004 book, which examines the fourteenth-c. plague disaster, its causes, spread, and consequences. Part one defines the plague and the role of rats and fleas; part two examines the spread of the disease throughout Europe; part three investigates patterns and dynamics, while part four gives mortality statistics, and part five shows the plague's impact within world history.

From 1346 to 1353 this epidemic decimated the population in Western Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Knowledge about bacteria and viruses did not exist at that time, and people considered the plague God's punishment for their sins, while learned individuals blamed a conjunction of stars. It was not until the last four decades of the twentieth century that scholars examined further aspects: the demography of cities and countrysides during the medieval plague years and in modern times (India and China); research isolated plague bacteria, also found in dead rats and their fleas, the principal vehicles for the disease's spread.

In the beginning of the malady, one or two buboes (inflamed swellings) appeared in the groin or axilla of the victim (lymph nodes), and death occurred in a few days (or sooner). The normal host animal for infected fleas was the black rat, found in the overcrowded tenements of the poor or on ships, an animal with a predilection for grain as foodstuff. When the fleas' stomachs became blocked with infected blood, the insects would search out more uncontaminated blood from humans and thus spread infection into human bodies. As diseased rats died, their fleas would migrate toward people; large groups of rats came with their fleas from non-European regions by way of sea-trade. Plague was transmitted in two ways: by rat fleas and by cross-infection between human beings.

Also, research showed that the plague spread in the countryside rather than in urban areas, and that, consequendy, morbidity was higher in country populations. The geographical origin of the first plague wave (also called the Justinian pandemic, 541-42, Constantinople) may have been Egypt, the regions south of Ethiopia (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania), or else Yemen. Another pandemic originated in China (in the Yunnan province). The fourteenth-c. plague was brought to Europe by Italian merchant ships from the Crimean seaport Kaffa (Feodosiya): there existed three plague foci in southem Russia. Some scholars claimed instead that the disease began in China.

Benedictow's long development on the spread of the plague takes 167 pages which we will not detail, except for mentioning chapter headings: Constantinople and Asia Minor, Alexandria, the Middle East and North Africa; Mediterranean Europe; the southern Balkans; Hungary; Iberian Peninsula; Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the British Isles, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Baltic countries, Russia. Exempt from the disease were Iceland and Finland; Poland and Bohemia were partially spared. For a long time, the religious oudook of medieval people prevented administrative actions to study and curb the plague.

The daily speed of plague's conquest was 40 km by ship, and 2 km on land. Density of populations determined why some European countries were less plague-stricken (Norway, Sweden) than others (Italy, France, Low Countries). …