‘The Black Death’ by Philip Ziegler

Zeigler-Black-Death-fcx-700pxI’m not really in a novel-reading mood at the moment; short stories and non-fiction is what I crave. So I recently read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It was first published in 1969 so it’s probably a bit out of date but it’s still a good book for the general reader. It’s a pretty standard text and starts with the origins of the plague, then covers the state of Medieval Europe then the spread of the plague across Europe as it heads towards Britain. Ziegler admits in the introduction that he has concentrated more on England in an attempt to confine the subject to a manageable length but I suspect it’s also partly because he is English himself and he was writing predominately for an English audience.

The speed with which the Black Death spread across Europe is amazing (roughly from 1347 to 1350) and must have been truly shocking for everyone caught up in it. Not knowing the cause of the disease was another aspect of the terror it inflicted on the Medieval mind. The book got bogged down with statistics at times, debating whether the percentage that died in such-and-such a place was 25% or 27% and whether that could be extrapolated to the rest of the country or to the whole of Europe. Usually the answer the author gave was ‘no, it couldn’t’ so it did seem a bit boring and pointless at times. However, the chapter on the Brotherhood of the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews was particularly interesting. The Flagellants travelled around Europe scourging themselves in towns and recruiting more members. The movement virtually died out once the plague was over. The Jews, along with lepers and Arabs in Spain were often made scapegoats for the disease, where they were accused of poisoning the wells of Christians or otherwise deliberately spreading the disease. Massacres followed which were often encouraged by the Flagellants. In England persecution of the Jews was almost nonexistent but only because Edward I had expelled most Jewish people in 1290. Meanwhile the Flagellants didn’t seem to impress the English.

In one chapter Ziegler uses a narrative form to show how the plague may have spread through a typical English village. Although Ziegler admits that the academic historian would mistrust such an approach, I agree with the author when he states:

But if the effect of the Black Death is really to be understood then it must be studied at work in a small village community and some attempt be made to evoke the atmosphere which it created and which it left behind.

So Ziegler uses ‘imaginative reconstruction’ to synthesise known details about different towns and villages to describe what might have happened to this fictional town called Blakwater that consists of about thirty families. It’s certainly effective and is an approach that John Hatcher uses in a more recent book, The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345-1350, only Hatcher uses a real village, Walsham in Suffolk, as his starting point. I’m looking forward to reading that book.

There are some contemporary written records of the plague and one that is quoted in this book I found particularly powerful and descriptive. It was written by a Welsh poet called Jeuan Gethin and was originally written in March or April 1349. The quoted passage came from a book by W. Rees on the Black Death in Wales:

We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. They are similar to the seeds of the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal and crowds precede the end. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. They are like a shower of peas, the early ornaments of black death, cinders of the peelings of the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like halfpence, like berries. It is a grievous thing that they should be on a fair skin.

In the end the plague killed about a third of the population of Europe; and there were further plagues to come in the fourteenth century, though none were as violent as the Black Death. The aftermath of the Black Death is covered as well and how it affected society and the church. So the book covers a lot of ground but I was left wondering about several things: why did the Black Death diminish so quickly? Were those that were left somehow more resistant to it? Did it only spread from east to west or did it spread further east? As always, further study is needed.

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11 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction, Ziegler, Philip

11 responses to “‘The Black Death’ by Philip Ziegler

  1. I haven’t been in the mood for big novels either lately. I’ve been sticking to novellas. Interesting review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Melissa. It was initially just going to be a quick review of a few books I’d read recently – just a paragraph or two on each book. But it grew and grew.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan

    Of course, the Wikipedia page is very informative and answers some of my questions at the end of the post. I should have read it before posting. đŸ™‚

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  3. Sounds fascinating. Have you read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year? I thought that it was a true eyewitness account from the author (as I was supposed to) until I read otherwise.

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  4. I read this a long time ago. For a period I was very interested in that Black Death. I also read The Great Mortality by John Kelly as well as In The Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century also covered the Plague extensively.

    Reading all three books really helped round out my knowledge of this event. The Black Plague was truly an unprecedented event in human history. I think that its importance cannot be understated.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jeff

    Apart from the village simulation experiment, the book sounds similar to the one I read on the subject at the time of the Ebola outbreak:
    https://recentitems.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/the-black-death-and-ebola/
    What is it that makes a plague so compelling? I’ve been told I there was a recent TV drama about a plague that I should watch. I’m more interested in what the historical record tells us though. Fiction dwells on the variety of reactions. Non-fiction has more variety. It describes historically contingent events that nobody could dream up, such as the flagellants, the medical beliefs, and the way different societies and their different layers were affected (mostly uniformly, but less so in some instances).
    Nice to see someone else blog on this topic!

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    • Jonathan

      Thanks for posting the link to your review Jeff. I suppose any book on the subject must use pretty much the same source material and therefore tell the same story. It was interesting having a look on the Wikipedia page because it looks as if a lot of recent DNA-based work is getting results – it will be interesting to read a newer book on the subject.

      I was amazed when Ziegler mentioned that the Black Death barely got a mention in older (18th & 19th century) history books.

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      • Jeff

        Ah, I wonder why the post-19C interest then? A lot of historians of the 14C seem to use parish records to trace the progress of the disease. Gottfried recounts the way that progress respected no social rank. I’ve seen secondhand copies of Ziegler around, so I will get one. I quite like the (at least, perceived) end-of-times narrative to it all. I vaguely remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand when I were a lad. The first half, the plague aftermath, is great. Then the spooky and supernatural spoils the rest. I think there’s something humbling about pandemics that reminds us how much we take for granted.

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