978-0-06-000693-8 / 9780060006938

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S.)


Publisher:Harper Perennial



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About the book:

In October 1347, at about the start of the month, twelve Genoese galleys put in to the port of Messina [Italy].

So begins, in almost fairy-tale fashion, a contemporary account of the worst natural disaster in European history -- what we call the Black Death, and what the generation who lived through it called la moria grandissima: "the great mortality." The medieval plague, however, was more than just a European catastrophe. From the bustling ports along the China Sea to the fishing villages of coastal Greenland, almost no area of Eurasia escaped the wrath of the medieval pestilence. And along with people died dogs, cats, chickens, sheep, cattle, and camels. For a brief moment in the middle of the fourteenth century, the words of Genesis 7:21 seemed about to be realized: "All flesh died that moved upon the earth."

THE GREAT MORTALITY is John Kelly's compelling narrative account of the medieval plague, from its beginnings on the desolate, windswept steppes of Central Asia to its journey through the teeming cities of Europe. "This is the end of the world," wrote a bootblack of the pestilence's arrival in his native Siena. THE GREAT MORTALITY paints a vivid picture of what the end of the world looked like, circa 1348 and 1349: bodies packed like "lasagna" in municipal plague pits, collection carts winding through the streets early in the morning to pick up the dead, desperate crowds crouched over municipal latrines inhaling noxious fumes in hopes of inoculating themselves against the plague, children abandoning infected parents -- and parents, infected children. THE GREAT MORTALITY also looks at new theories about the cause of the plague and takes into account why some scientists and historians believe that the Black Death was an outbreak not of bubonic plague, but of another infectious illness -- perhaps anthrax or a disease like Ebola.

Interweaving a modern scientific methodical analysis with an evocative portrait of medieval medicine, superstition, and bigotry, THE GREAT MORTALITY achieves an air of immediacy, authenticity, and intimacy never before seen in literature on the plague. Drawing on the latest research, it unwraps the mystery that shrouds the disease and offers a new and fascinating look into the complex forces that went into the making of the Black Death.

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