” There was plague somewhere in Europe almost every year between 1348 and 1680″ page 34
“Most poignant of all are the expressions of the pain and loss created by one of plague’s cruelest features: the heavy mortality it inflicted on single families and households, as relatives and servants died one after the other” page 66
The library owns over sixty volumes in an interesting series that are literally easy to miss, because they are slim books less than seven inches tall, with covers I can only describe as boring. They are Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press.
Our titles range from Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction, by Robin Le Poidevin to World Music: A Very Short Introduction by Philip V. Bohlman, stopping on their polymath way to visit The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Linda Greenhouse and Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack.
The topics are all serious, including subjects that many people would like to get to know better, but don’t have the time to study in depth. These little volumes are just the place to start if you don’t want commit to a lengthy book. Despite their small size every Very Short Introduction includes references, further reading and an index. They are written by learned people who do a good job of making their subjects accessible without dumbing them down.
Plague: A Very Short Introduction is about the Bubonic Plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but the book covers other plagues with uncertain causes that were recorded right back to Biblical times and beyond. Author Paul Slack points out that virulent epidemic diseases can have similar effects in human lives, no matter what their causes or when they occur. One effect can be a loss of population and seemingly empty cities ” ‘Grass grew in the streets,’ says Paul the Deacon in Rome about a plague in 680, and Samuel Pepys about London a thousand years later in the plague of 1665.”
Plague: A Very Short Introduction covers the biology of the disease but it is mainly about its history and social effects. It is often argued that the decline in population from the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s caused the end of Serfdom, a system that tied Serfs to their Lords and the Lord’s land. Other people think that it also led to the Industrial Revolution because technology was needed to fill in for labor shortages. Paul Slack argues that this is too simplistic a view. The long term effects of plague depended on the situation before the disease hit. Some places, like Sicily recovered more quickly, even though they had a higher mortality rate. Serfdom did decline in Western Europe, but in Eastern Europe the lords were powerful enough to impose serfdom on previously free populations.
The book also uses written accounts from the time to look at the effects of the plague on individuals, even those who survived. Despite not knowing about bacteria and viruses medieval people observed that human contact made disease spread. They frequently instituted quarantines that kept people in as well as keeping people out, sometimes cruelly as family members or servants were thrown out of their homes at the first sign of disease. Other people showed a better side of humanity, nursing abandoned strangers at the risk of their own lives.
Unsettlingly for the future, Paul Slack says that we don’t know the exact reasons that the plague became so devastating. Changes in climate (possibly caused by a meteor), changes in animal populations, expanding trade routes and increasing urbanization are all possibilities. We don’t even know why it ended: ”The end of the first pandemic remains a puzzle, the greatest mystery in the whole history of plague.” Maybe it hasn’t ended, Bubonic Plague still occurs naturally in the Western United States and infects up to 5000 people worldwide every year. In terrifyingly dry language, the World Health Organization classifies plague as a “re-emerging” disease.
Plague: A Very Short Introduction is a good choice for readers of historical medical non-fiction such as The Ghost Map and I recommend the entire Very Short Introduction series for anyone who ever needs any short introduction to a topic (and who doesn’t?).
Check the WRL catalog for Plague: A Very Short Introduction