Another history book off my To Be Read shelf! Trust me, this was no easy task. In between Poe, Doyle and Christie, not to mention an essay comparing early fictional detectives, I managed to no only read John Kelly’s amazing “The Great Mortality”, I managed to enjoy it, reading long into the night.
The Great Mortality stands out among the plethora of books on the killer plague of 1347-1350. Kelly’ research into the lives of those living through this nightmare it is a testament to late Medieval European society. The book is a look at the plague, not from a modern perspective, but from contemporary reports, journals and tax records. Readers hear from those who lived through what they called “The Great Morality”. If reading about death by bacteria, isn’t bad enough, Kelly shows us just how awful people could be to other people. He never judges, just shows us reports of Christians killing Jews, and Muslims ignoring victims.
The book begins with a lesson on how the plague may have started and ends talking about the debate between scientists who believe the illness was a mutated form of Yersinia Pestis, a bacteria found in certain rat fleas and the “Plague Deniers” who think it was a highly contagious virus. Whatever the cause, we know now it wiped out 2/3 of Europe’s population, and in some small pockets, 60% to 90%.
I made several notes as I read that I thought I would share with you. I call this list:
Things you may have not known about The Great Mortality
Venice’s death rate was around 600 a day, so the city implemented a program that saw to it, that no dead body be allowed to stay in the city. There was a daily shuttle of boats up and down the canals gathering the dead to be taken to a San Giorgio Island. Venice put a halt to normal burial rituals. No one was allowed to lie out a loved one for last goodbyes. This did not lesson the mortality rate, but it did cut down on secondary infection from too many dead and not enough cemetery space that so many other cities were facing. The forcefulness of the Venetian response and the ability of the city to continue to operate is something the US Energy Commission looks to when calculating a response to a thermonuclear war.
Plague pits may seem horrible to us, but for medieval society it was the worse possible burial imaginable. The idea of a personal death is a product of the European Middle Ages. Death was a time to take stock of ones life and prepare for heaven. The pits were the antithesis of this idea. It made death anonymous, animal like and in the medieval mind, unrecognizable for future resurrection. How could Jesus find you if you were in a pit, possibly surrounded by sinners?
The plague was unusually well documented in Florence. Because of the vast amount of information we have, it has been calculated that the disease traveled 2.5 miles a day. Other plagues took months to travel the same distance. Imagine if this happened today. Between cars and air travel we would never see it coming!
With cemeteries filling up within weeks, what did Avignon do with their dead? Float them down streams and rivers until they came to the Mediterranean Sea. After reading this, I am not sure I want to eat fish again.
Did they mourn their dead? Of course! The Italian Poet Petrarch wrote this poem about his lost love Laura:
She closed her eyes: and in the sweet slumber lying
her spirit tiptoed from its lodging place
It’s folly to shrink in fear, if this is dying
for death looked love in her face.
Medieval doctors were at a loss as how to deal with the plague. Yet one Muslim doctor, Ibn al-Khatib held some ideas that are very modern. He stood his ground when it came to contagion and how to stop it. Sadly, the Muslim religious leaders believed it was God’s plan that so many should die (much like the Christian clerics). The Muslim religious leaders did not want to do anything; they felt it was up to God to determine who would live and who would die. Khatib was killed for his ideas.
Yes, the living did notice the dead. One report talks of “stepping back into doorways to give the death carts passage”. The streets were full of dead bodies (both man and beast). The filthy streets and overwhelming stench meant that no one could ignore the horrors around them, even for a minute. It must have been hell on earth!
The plague gave us the most bizarre artwork ever seen. Danse Macabre or Dance of Death originated in France in the early 1400s as a reminder that death takes everyone, regardless of age of status. Many people must have felt this reminder was necessary as it quickly spread through out Europe and can found on everything from Frescoes to woodcuts.
There is so much more to learn from The Great Mortality I highly recommend it. It will appeal those who are not familiar with this era as well as scholars like me who thought they knew just about everything there was to know about the greatest plague to ever hit mankind.