Title: The Black Death
Author: Philip Zeigler
Genre: Non fiction; History
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. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read this book as a sort of ‘palette cleanser’ after reading the fiasco of In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor. In this sense The Black Death succeeded. This book is a concise and readable introduction and a good reference of the state of scholarship relating to the Black Death at the time the book was published. This book was published in 1969 and so it is dated, both in some areas of information (for example, there is no mention of the possibility of Black Death being anything other than bubonic plague or the possibility of there being a simultaneous outbreak of anthrax or other murrain disease at the same time) and in attitude (overemphasis in how people in the middle ages were overly ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ for example). However the book is very much a product of its time and so for these points I don’t judge him too harshly.
I do feel though that the book dragged in the middle. I don’t feel that it was really necessary to go region by region in England telling of the different percentages and statistics of how many people died in various areas, especially after stressing very emphatically that many of these statistics are nothing more than conjectures. I also felt that he relied to heavily on church documents. I understand that there are more available and more complete contemporary documentation from the church then lay sources but I was hoping to learn more about how the plague effected the ordinary population. I must also admit that I was confused with Zeigler’s repeated emphasis on the fact that the clergy supposedly suffered a greater mortality rate than the regular population when I have heard before that the clergy died at the same rate as normal citizens, not more, so I am not sure who to believe. I was also somewhat frustrated at Zeigler’s continuing hedging before making any sort of declarative statement. There was very rarely any sort of definitive information; each fact or figure was followed by ‘while this is possible it is also possible that instead…’ I would have appreciated some certainty, although I know that in some cases this just isn’t possible. Also, I thought the chapter where he fictionally reconstructs a medieval village was pointless. It was basically a historical-fiction short story and had no place being included in the book.
In spite of these issues, this book is really a good introduction to the subject. Although the focus is undoubtedly on England, chapter space is also given to the impact of the plague on Italy, France, and Germany. There is also information on the state of medicine at the outbreak of the plague and its response to the crisis, the terrible persecution of the Jews during this time who were thought to have caused the plague by poisoning the wells, the flagellant movement, medieval city life, specifically London, and a variety of other topics. For those looking for a relatively comprehensive overview of the Black Death, its origins, its impact on Europe, and its lasting effects, this book would be a good place to start as long as you keep in mind that this book is dated in some aspects. In comparison to In the Wake of the Plague (which you should not read UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES) this book is inordinately more detailed, informative, readable, and, in my opinion, enjoyable. I would recommend this book as a good place to start if you are interested in exploring the phenomena that was the Black Death in 14th century.