Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Great Mortality (Book #84)

The population of England and France was about the same in 1800 as it was in 1300--and not because they'd attained an equilibrium state for the pre-industrial carrying capacity of their lands that they maintained for all that time. No, the 14th century was so very lethal that it took took them nearly 500 years to recover. (The same is probably true for the rest of Europe, too--we just have more data for England and France than anywhere else.)

While the 14th century included several waves of famine and disease in Europe, obviously the worst was the Black Death, which killed somewhere between a third and half the population between 1347 and 1351. The Great Mortality (John Kelly, 2006) is a narrative history of the outbreak, and it was good enough to keep me turning pages on a topic I was already quite familiar with. What I took away from this account was how remarkable it was that society still managed to function, even in cities that lost half or more of their population, in the midst of all the horror. (Not that society didn't change, nor that there wasn't violence and darkness in response to the epidemic, but when you consider the scale of the catastrophe, it's remarkable that the survivors were as resilient as they were.)

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