John Kelly’s The Great Mortality is one of those works that proves history can be a wonderful read and not merely a dry recounting of events and dates.
The Great Mortality is subtitled “An Intimate History of the Black Death.” Intimate accurately describes how Kelly tells the story. In Kelly’s hands, Y. pestis (the scientific abbreviation for plague bacillus) takes on its own malevolent personality. Kelly examines the background of the bubonic plague and, as it turns into a marauding army, takes us along on its march into and through Europe and England from roughly 1347 to 1352. Yet he does not simply recount dates and places. Kelly relies heavily on court records, church records and contemporary chronicles to place this terror in the context of everyday life.
The historical record of the time is neither huge nor tremendously accurate. For example, exaggeration seems to be the rule rather than the exception in contemporary estimates of deaths caused by the plague. Kelly himself engages in some creative nonfiction in telling the story. Yet it is in the context of describing how life in the cities, towns and villages was directly affected by the plague. For example, he puts us in the room with a chronicler in Florence writing in his journals as he listens to the “crack of embers in the dying fire and the sound of carriages rushing by in the empty street outside.” Likewise, he places us on a bridge in Avignon on a spring Sunday morning in 1345, allowing us to gaze at Petrarch and perhaps even see Laura, the woman who inspired him to write so many poems.
Kelly also uses occasional references to elements of everyday modern life to help the reader comprehend 14th Century life. Take this description, for example: “Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon, and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road, and you have Cheapside, the busiest, bawdiest, loudest patch of humanity in medieval England.” With methods like these, The Great Mortality tells the story by taking us into the day-to-day life of the cities and people affected.
There are other good histories of the Black Death and its impact out there. Works by Norman Cantor and Philip Ziegler come to mind. Kelly’s book, though, ranks near the top. As the subtitle implies, it is more personal than the earlier works in both pace and perspective, moving beyond the numbers, horrible as they are, to real people and their lives.
In an age of man-made weapons of mass destruction, this could be viewed as a cautionary tale. I prefer to think of it simply as history as it should be written.