The Black Death and the Transformation of the West: ,

David V. Herlihy, Author, Samuel K. Cohn, JR., Editor
David V. Herlihy, Author, Samuel K. Cohn, JR., Editor Harvard University Press $28 (128p) ISBN 978-0-674-07612-9
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 117 pages - 978-0-674-07613-6
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Most historians would agree that the 14th-century Black Death transformed the West. But few are entirely agreed on just how. Even Herlihy, a prominent medievalist who died in 1991, continually modified his thinking in the light of new research. This book, based on three recently rediscovered lectures from 1985, looks at important aspects of the plague and its impact on society. Herlihy begins by questioning the assumption that the Black Death was Yersinia pestis, or bubonic plague, arguing that one primary sign--the massive death of rats--was missing, and that some of the symptoms might indicate typhus, tuberculosis or anthrax. He then shows how the contraction in old, entrenched classes of workers (whether clergy or craftsmen) and the freeing of land from the constraints of grain production led to greater class flexibility and economic diversity. Finally, he looks at the decline in culture and customs and the reforms that followed in religion, health care, perception of the state and education. He concludes that, in the early 14th century, Europe was stymied by a paralyzing economic and demographic system that might have continued forever but ""[t]he plague broke the deadlock, and allowed Europeans to rebuild... in ways more admissive of further development."" If not every assertion is convincing (some are even rebutted in Cohn's helpful introduction), it is still a fine addition to thinking on the subject and an example of how good historical thought evolves. (Sept.)
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