Still human

John Kelly's The great mortality should have been a thoroughly grim read. That it wasn't is probably due to the resilience of the human spirit that often shines through whatever life can throw at it. It's not an easy read though, and in times as changeable as ours, it's a stark reminder of how easily civilization can break down suddenly and unexpectedly.

Written with the fluency of a novel The great mortality tells the story of the Black death that swept across Asia and Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Spreading along trade routes in the wake of the Mongol hordes, Yersinia Pestis brought death wherever it paused - from Chinese and Arab traders on the Silk Road to the shores of the Crimea, spreading out across the Mediterranean from Dubrovnik to Genoa, and Genoa's old trading enemy, Venice. From the streets of Constantinople to Lake Geneva, the palace of the Pope at Avignon to the busy town of Norwich and the port of Bristol. Everywhere it brought death and misery in its wake, some extremely bizarre behaviour, evil deeds, and selfless heroism. Hardly a family or community would be untouched from the royal family of England to the humblest peasant, and the most devoted nun.

Kelly draws on the wealth of original source material of the period including accounts from plague victims themselves, to present a very human picture of life during one of the darkest periods of history. In a continent already ravaged by war and famine, the Black Death could have been the end of everything. Indeed, as Kelly points out, when preparing models of the world post-nuclear holocaust, the "Great Mortality" was drawn on as being the nearest point to the complete collapse of civilization. Despite a huge mortality rate (anything from 40-80%) Europe and Asia survived; and came through the collapse in some ways stronger. Survivors were often more resilient to future outbreaks, this is probably the reason why later manifestations of the plague (with some notable exceptions such as the outbreak in London in 1665) were not as devastating as the 1348 outbreak. The huge mortality rate also had a big positive impact on culture, politics and social mobility. A much darker side of the fear engendered by the plague though was revealed in terrible attacks of Anti-Semitism, blackmailing grave-diggers, and the weird world of the Flagellants.

Kelly's linking of later historical events, such as the attitude of post-World War I survivors with the survivors of the Great Mortality has received criticism from some readers, but it made a lot of sense to me. Unlike the "foreign country" feel of A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, much of the Europe of Kelly's book has a sense of familiarity. These may be people living very different lives to us, but they undoubtedly had much in common too. From their ambitions and preoccupations to their concerns about family, work, life and death.

What also struck me as perhaps never before is the long shadow that the Black Death has laid across Western history and culture from the art of Bosch to literature from authors as diverse as Chaucer, Edgar Allan Poe and just about every dystopian writer you've ever come across. From fairy tales to science fiction, the Great Mortality is firmly embedded in our cultural DNA whether or not we realise it.

Kelly's book is a wonderful humane account of one of the greatest tragedies to ever affect Europe. A compelling read.


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