The Black Death 1346-1353
[ bookreviews ]
In the autumn of 1347, Giovanni Villani, a Florentine merchant and administrator, made a note in his chronicle of a previously unknown 'pestilence', recently arrived in Italy from the Near East:
The pestilence leaped to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and Elba, and from there soon reached all the shores of the mainland... And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted till -
Villani never finished the sentence. He died from the 'pestilence' - known to subsequent generations as the Black Death - early in 1348. Marchionne di Coppa Stefani, a survivor and another Florentine, left a Breughelesque account of its consequences:
At every church they dug deep pits... In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.
Most Anglophone readers' reference point for this subject will probably be Philip Ziegler's The Black Death (1969) - a beautifully judged (and deservedly successful) synthesis of contemporary scholarship on the Black Death in England, and still in many ways the closest thing we have to a 'complete history' of the first European epidemic of 1346-1353. In The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History, originally published in 2004, Ole Benedictow shows once again that Ziegler is a fiendishly hard act to follow. As the ambitious choice of title suggests, he intends this book to replace Ziegler's masterpiece as the definitive summary of current historical thought on the Black Death in Europe. Benedictow - now Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Oslo - specialises in demographic studies of the Black Death in Scandinavia. Like many Continental historians of a certain age, his approach to history draws heavily on the structuralism of the Annales school, particularly as expressed in the work of Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Benedictow looks to 'social formations' and mentalités, rather than individual agency, in explaining historical change, and always keeps one eye on the loping rhythms of la longue durée. In the hands of Braudel or Le Roy Ladurie, this methodology has produced some of the most challenging European historiography of the post-war period. In Benedictow's hands, it can seem incurious and strangely inhumane.
Benedictow begins by framing his 'complete history' in terms of four questions. What was the Black Death? What was its 'pattern of spread' in 1346-1353? How many people died? And what was its 'impact' on European history? He seeks to answer his second and third questions with some extremely detailed historical synthesis, set out over two long sections of the book. In the former he uses the huge number of regional and national demographic studies published in the last few decades to reconstruct the spread of the Black Death. In the latter he uses these same local studies to estimate the number of deaths it caused. Benedictow is quick to point out the problems involved in applying modern national boundaries to the plethora of cultural and geographical zones which defined medieval Europe, and his multilingual skills allow him to make use of sources and authors often ignored by Anglophone historians. If nothing else, The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History stands as a useful single-volume summary of this important international body of work. But after only a few paragraphs Benedictow begins to deploy a more limited interpretation of his ambitious remit, one which comes to dominate his approach both to historical sources and to the work of other historians. We are told that the book is a demographic study of 'the epidemiology, the territorial spread and the mortality' (p xi) of the Black Death in Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe in 1346-1353, and in a later chapter that 'the over-riding objective of this book is to reach good estimates on general population mortality' (p 266). By restricting the scope of his 'complete history' to a demographic perspective on the Black Death Benedictow seriously limits the popular appeal of this book. By refusing to engage with much recent historical work on this subject he greatly reduces its academic value.
Perhaps the best example of this tendency comes when Benedictow attempts to frame an answer to his first question. He cites three existing bodies of literature: his own work on historical demography; modern clinical and epidemiological studies of bubonic plague; and local studies of the Black Death in Europe. You don't have to be a professional historian of medicine (and here I should point out that I am) to spot a serious omission here. Where is the fruitful and fascinating work on this subject by historians of medicine and disease? Addressing this point requires a brief but (I hope) forgivable digression into the politics of European medical history. Writing the history of medicine has traditionally been the province of medical practitioners themselves, and the particular professional and clinical perspectives of these writers brought a distinctive shape to the discipline. First, a tendency to focus on the historical practitioners they saw as the direct antecedents of modern doctors and surgeons. Second, a view of history as progressive, climbing inexorably to the 'triumphs' of current thought and practice. Third, the interpretation of medical history in terms of current concepts and categories, exemplified by the genre of 'retrospective diagnosis'. Professional historians moving into this field after the Second World War reacted against these characteristics. They widened the field of study to include other practitioners (and patients), focusing on their social and cultural relations. They fiercely rejected the 'Whiggish' progressivism of the clinician-historians. Finally, taking their cue from parallel movements in anthropology and sociology, they made a general attempt to understand the history of medicine in terms of the concepts and categories used by historical actors themselves. For those involved in this newly reconstructed discipline, one question became the subject of intense debate. How could they write the history of medicine and disease in ways that respected both the idea of a contextualised historical analysis and the powerful knowledge claims of contemporary medical science?
Many readers may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Surely everybody knows that the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, as described in the classic 1894 papers by Yersin and Kitasano? Well, yes and no. The identification of the Black Death as modern bubonic plague is itself an idea with a history. From the 1920s a fairly sizeable body of evidence, drawn from many sources and disciplines, has convinced most historians that the Black Death was indeed an outbreak of Y. pestis. Lars Walløe, a physiologist and a colleague of Benedictow's at Oslo, is one of the most articulate proponents of this position. But serious questions remain. Sam Cohn Jr and other 'pestosceptics' continue to challenge the evidence. The identification of individual Black Death victims is made from archaeological context only, as bubonic plague leaves no skeletal traces. Our knowledge of the Black Death comes, therefore, almost entirely from written records, and these sources do not always concur with what we know of modern Y. pestis. Other historians object on ideological grounds, criticising any attempt to view a historical case solely through the lens of modern medical concepts.
Hearteningly, the general response to this lively disagreement has been to take a multidisciplinary approach to the history of the Black Death. In April 2006 I took part in 'The Identity of Plague', a one-day seminar at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. This event allowed Cohn, Walløe, Vivian Nutton, Lloyd and Dorothy Moote and many other distinguished scholars in this field to engage in pointed but polite debate, and to discuss a variety of views of the Black Death without having to agree that one perspective overrode all others. The work of these writers provides an important context for any discussion of the Black Death - particularly in a text that styles itself 'the complete history' of this subject. But Benedictow fails to engage with them in any meaningful sense. His conclusion - based on a survey of mainly pre-Second World War clinical literature and mainly pre-Ziegler historical literature - is that the Black Death of 1346-1353 can be understood entirely as an epidemic of Y. pestis. He refuses even to acknowledge the possibility of developing a historicised understanding of this complex and multi-layered historical case, preferring the wholesale imposition of what is a profoundly modern disease category. One gets the feeling that Benedictow is seeking to close down academic discussion of this subject - always a profoundly unpleasant experience.
This 'presentist' view enables Benedictow not only to disregard influential historical debates on the identity of the Black Death, but also to impose a grossly simplified account of 14th-century medical theory and practice, one based largely on the work of practitioner-historians of medicine. He presumes that all medieval physicians shared a crudely-drawn 'miasmatic' theory of infection, and then proceeds repeatedly to sneer at it while ignoring both the wide range of practitioners working in this period and the plurality of explanatory models and treatment regimes they employed. Strangest of all, he is almost silent on 'folk medicine' responses to the Black Death. How can a 'complete history' of an epidemic disease ignore the question of how its sufferers saw their plight, how they sought to address the deaths of their families, friends and neighbours and the prospect of their own mortality? This deeply anachronistic approach is also found in Benedictow's approach to medieval accounts of the Black Death. He works on the assumption that by comparing modern clinical descriptions of bubonic plague with the work of chroniclers, poets or parish clerks he can extract what is 'true' and 'objective' and discard what is 'fanciful' or 'exaggerated', giving little consideration to the web of cultural, religious and literary contexts from which these sources derive their meaning. Benedictow's almost audible exasperation with any source that does not directly contribute to his project finds another expression in his criticism of 'classical humanist rhetorical scholarship' (p 245) for its lack of interest in 'vulgar facts' (population statistics, in other words). He seems constantly annoyed with Boccaccio for having wasted his time on the Decameron (dismissed as 'a frame... for bawdy stories', p 292) instead of doing something of more use to modern demographic historians.
Given that English is not Benedictow's first language, his prose is generally clear, if a little rough around the edges. His metaphors are, at times, both rambling and overblown: "lucky places where people won the jackpot in the great lottery of life and death managed by the Black Death" (p 109); "the awesome invisible armies of murderous epidemic death" (p 70). This latter phrase also reflects his wholesale use of military metaphors for the spread of the Black Death: not only 'bridgeheads', 'advances', 'victories' and so on, but also the personification of the Black Death as both a skilled commander - "The Black Death's strategic genius... emerged triumphantly" (p 82) - and an invading army. Throughout the book one detects an almost Miltonic sense of repressed admiration for the 'achievements' of the Black Death in 'conquering' Europe. It is a great pity that Benedictow cannot muster the same respect or interest when dealing with his human subjects. This lack of interest in individuals becomes particularly apparent in Benedictow's final chapter, the most theoretically sophisticated part of the book, in which he attempts to expand his demographic perspective into a 'complete history' of the Black Death. Earlier in the text he has, almost in passing, asserted the objective reality of 'social formations' - the structures within a society which, in his view, define and give meaning to the chronological periods studied by historians - and claims that the study of history should be the study of these structures and their role in "the grand historical process of societal change" (p 247). Following Braudel, he believes that a social formation is a strong determinant of the mentalité of those who live under its regime: "All people living in the Renaissance were Renaissance men or women, because their lives and minds were formed by a specific social formation" (p 388). Clumsy shoes, in other words, make clumsy minds.
Leaving aside the usual po-mo tittering about 'grand narratives', Benedictow's structuralist model is seriously deficient as a tool for generating historical understanding. It leads him to disregard the 'superstructure' of literature, 'folk' culture, individual thought and life - the Decameron and the dance of death - as secondary to the 'real' history of social formations and mentalités. He deals with the cultural impact of the Black Death in less than a paragraph: "a near obsession with death... [and] the art of dying" (p 392). He treats individuals - particularly the illiterate poor - as merely a sensual kind of material object, whose inner lives are as irrelevant as the proverbial froth on a coffee-cup. He talks about "the intense religious mind of medieval man" (p 393), as though the entire population of Europe between 1000 and 1500 could be represented by one muddy peasant with a bubo and a crucifix. This passion for generalisation is carried over into Benedictow's account of the historical impact of the Black Death. He argues that the European wars of the later 14th and 15th centuries were a direct consequence of the Black Death. Falling populations, and the associated decline in mercantile and agricultural activity, reduced the income of royal exchequers; war, he argues, became the only way in which aristocratic elites could justify new taxes on the still-prosperous middling sort. Once again, though, this claim is made with little supporting evidence and with the only briefest of nods to the enormous body of work on medieval European political history. Did the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of the Roses really share such a straightforward and generalised cause?
In the wider frame of the longue durée, Benedictow sees the Black Death as a force for good, a sort of bacterial Glorious Revolution. In the long term, it increased the wages and the living standards of the poor. It reminded the rich that they were mortal and, to a certain extent, curbed their fiscal excesses. Most importantly, he argues, the Black Death speeded the transition to an 'early modern' social formation, and in doing so laid the foundations for a 'dynamic', 'innovative' capitalist society in Europe. In his closing paragraphs he claims that the Black Death was ultimately responsible for its own demise: by creating a social formation that valued 'rational observation', the Black Death 'permitted a better understanding of how plague was disseminated... [and] gave a strong impetus to the notion that governments had responsibilities for the welfare of their people' (p 394).
These criticisms do not alter the fact that The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History contains many moments of insight. Benedictow's reconstruction of the Black Death in Santiago de Compostela (p 83) is a gem, an example of his demographic method at its best. His attempts to calculate the speed at which the Black Death moved through different countries (between 0.5 and 2.5 kilometres per day, depending on local factors) are fascinating, as are his notes on etymology. 'Black Death' appears to be a variant translation of the medieval Latin atra mors, 'terrible death'. (Plague, incidentally, comes from plaga, 'blow'). His study of death rates suggests that the general population mortality in the Black Death was far higher than previously thought - between 50% and 70%. Like Ziegler, Benedictow gets across the tragic, grinding repetitiveness of the Black Death, its seemingly unstoppable movement across Europe, the numberless communities and lives consumed. But Ziegler's great strength is that he combined demographic analysis with a range of historical perspectives on the Black Death - cultural, political, individual and so on - in a highly readable narrative structure. Benedictow's weakness is that he is more interested in imposing his particular model of historical development and in pursuing his own demographic interests than in trying to assemble a truly comprehensive historical account of the Black Death.
In this sense the value of The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History may be exactly what Benedictow intends it to be: a demographic overview of the epidemic, and a new estimate of its mortality rate based on the best available evidence. But his arguments, methods and conclusions could be set out in a much shorter volume (or, indeed, in the useful but under-utilised fold-out map). The details of his study as set out over several hundred pages are tough going, even for specialists in the field. General readers looking for an engaging, multifaceted synthesis of the best recent scholarship on this subject will be turned off by the mass of demographic data, the repetitive structure, and Benedictow's omission of cultural and individual perspectives. Academic readers' patience will be severely tested by the lack of historical and historiographical context, and by his apparently deliberate refusal to engage with any recent literature on this subject. Benedictow's insistent redescription of the Black Death in reductive clinical and demographic terms adds little to our historical understanding, and indeed masks the extent of academic controversies on this subject. This is not, emphatically not, 'the complete history' of the Black Death. Stick with Ziegler or, better still, the Decameron.