Book Review: A Global History of the Black Death

ive here. Experts have pointed out that the level of deaths during the Black Death was too high in many parts of Europe to bring about lasting improvements in working conditions for both the artisan and the unskilled. A shortage of labor will do that. A new book by James Baelish on the medieval pandemic argues that it had larger effects, including driving the rise of Europe.

By Jordan Michael Smith, contributing editor at The New Republic. He has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among other publications. Originally Posted in Undark

Headlines in It was mid-June unmistakably. Someone read, “The ground zero of the Black Death is finally found after 600 years.” The news that researchers, mainly from Scotland and Germany, identified northern Kyrgyzstan as the starting point of a medieval epidemic, has attracted worldwide attention. “Our study sets out some of the biggest and most exciting questions in history, and establishes when and where the single most famous and infamous killer of humans began,” said one of the scientists.

One had to read the fine lines to know the qualifications of the claims. The study, published in Nature, relied on a small sample size, and data on more places and individuals are needed, and times before this discovery can be considered crucial. Nothing is laid to rest yet.

book review“The World Made by the Plague: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe” (in English), by James Baelish (Princeton University Press; 640 pages).

James Baelish’s new book, The World That Made the Plague: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe, shows the depth and longevity of the debate about the sources and effects of an era-specific scourge. Belish, an Oxford University historian, suggests that what is now known as the Black Death was so dilapidated that its effects equal those of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance. It’s an astonishing effect, but it makes a decent argument for it in this bold and enormously researched work. From explaining the effects of the plague globally to demonstrating how central the rise of Europe was, Belich shows that the medieval pandemic affected many aspects of human life.

The epidemic, formerly called the Great Death or the Great Plague, had lasted for hundreds of years and was so deadly that it is still generally referred to as The Epidemic. “The pandemic of the Black Death, which began in 1345, lasted for more than three centuries and involved about 30 major epidemics in total,” wrote Baelish. What’s more, “it hasn’t always acted like a modern epidemic,” he writes as well. “I’ve killed a lot more people, for one reason.” Baelish’s book tacitly asserts that compared to the destruction of the plague, Covid-19 is relatively insignificant.

How many deaths were caused by the Black Death? Despite centuries of debate on this topic, there is no consensus. The common belief is that the first wave killed between 25 percent and 33 percent of Western Europeans. (Historian Barbara Tuchman provided the one-third estimate in her 1978 bestselling book about the 14th century, “A Distant Mirror.”) Belish suggests that the number was much higher. In the first blow alone, the Western European population halved, he writes, citing studies of death rates in England, France, Italy, and Scandinavia. Many places have not returned to their pre-plague population levels about 250 years ago. (Despite his claims, the true scale of the dead is still widely disputed.)

He also notes that the plague caused similar devastation in Eastern Europe and the Islamic world, garnering data from academic sources showing that it devastated northern Russia, Hungary, Istanbul, Syria and Iraq. The “plague-made world” is greatly enhanced by these cross-border and cross-cultural perspectives, which allow for broader conclusions and generalizations than most accounts favor a handful of Western European lands.

Many aspects of the plague are still disputed. The controversy begins in the opening pages of the book, where Baelish recounts the controversy over his nature. The standard view was that it was a bubonic plague, and its pathogens are common in rodents. Scholars whom Pellich calls “anti-Bhoponists” (and he enjoys neologism) have revised this perspective in the twenty-first century, but dismiss the claims of the reviewers, writing that “since 2010, ‘Bobboners’ have responded decisively.” He cites research showing that scientists found the pathogen of the bubonic plague at 10 different Black Death burial sites in different countries. Evidence from tombs excavated in London in 2013 showed the same thing.

He writes that “rodent species are the wicked,” and points to evidence of black grain-loving rats aboard littoral ships as a key to the plague’s spread. But Belich arrives at this by associating a series of propositions that, on their own, make sense, but become more questionable when complicated. He says an outbreak that jumped to humans from rodents that coexisted with the population was likely to infect much more humans than a single infection coming directly from wild rodents acting alone, for example. He then argues that for the plague to spread as quickly as it did, it is likely that the first infected settlement was connected to other areas by trade, and “the name of the black rat is ‘ship rat’, making it a potential suspect.” He admits: “One can exaggerate the this case”, but he nonetheless pursues it. No matter how logical these inferences may be, they are hardly conclusive.

After reviewing the controversies over the origins of the plague, Baelish turns to his primary concern: the ripple effect of the Black Death on the world. In his account, the massive demographic shift of the plague affected everything from increased book production to “changes in shipping technology and warfare.” He even suggests that it may have led to the invention of racism as we know it today, because “only from the year 1400 do we see hints of the concept that vice and inferiority were innate in one’s ancestors.” However, he admits, “Even I’m not sure the plague was behind this shift.”

In Baelish’s view, what made the plague different from other major historical events and disasters was that while it decimated humans, it left the physical world as it is. He doubled the average amount per person everything,” From horses to dwelling, he writes. For a while, this meant more resources for survivors and greater access to luxury goods, better living conditions, and higher wages for workers.

Baelish notes that he is not the first to argue on behalf of the plague’s long-term consequences. But no other researcher seems to have collected such huge amounts of data to show such a strong causal link between the plague and the expansion of Europe into Asia, Latin America and North America. It is certainly difficult to think of another book that has collected mountains of science in the service of this thesis. In assessing the “world made by the plague”, in the absence of the plague, Western countries may not have ascended to global power. In the absence of an epidemic, there may have been no imperialism or colonialism, nor the United States or the transatlantic slave trade. While Baelish in no way claims that the Black Death was the determining factor in those fates, he convincingly argues that it was a powerful influence. Combined with surplus cash and more mobile labour, the desire for “exotic and extractive goods” led Europeans to travel abroad in search of new resources; Not many of them are anymore.

Scholars have long attributed the rise of the West to a variety of institutional, cultural, and technological factors. Baelish believes that these views are “suspiciously suspicious” for Europe, which means that the West rose to prominence because it was superior to other continents, cultures, and civilizations. But it can be argued that it goes very far in the other direction, claiming that nearly every major historical and social development from the late Middle Ages to the nineteenth century was influenced in some way by the plague.

Throughout his novel, Belich makes hypotheses, guesses, and suggestions, writing repeatedly that he doubts something is true or that something might be accurate. But this can be unavoidable when trying to make claims for a period when there is relatively little documentation and a lot of contention.

It’s doubtful that Baelish expected all of his claims to be accepted, even quipped that being a “helpfully wrong” is the “default ambition of this book”. This is not a narrative history, but one that navigates through vast amounts of research and academic disputes to provide new interpretations of historical events. Readers will come away with an expanded understanding of a formative period in European and world history. And they would be hard-pressed to see the plague as anything other than its role in making the modern world. As Baelish wrote, “The term ‘revolution’ may be overused, but if the sudden slashing of people in half and doubling of everything else is not revolutionary, what is it?”

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