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The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

By: David Herlihy

117 pages, no illustrations

Harvard University Press

Paperback | Oct 1997 | #98306 | ISBN: 0674076133
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NHBS Price: £15.95 $20/€18 approx

About this book

It ravaged a continent for over a century, killed millions of people and decimated economies. The Black Death is considered by many to have been the great watershed in medieval history. In this book the author challenges historical thinking about this disastrous period. He asks was the Black Death bubonic plague? Nobody ever mentions rats dying in large numbers. Were buboes the main symptoms? Doctors of the day and evidence from the lives of saints describe "freckles" as often as buboes. Looking beyond the view of the Black Death as unmitigated catastrophe, the author sees in it the birth of technological advance as societies struggle to create labour-saving devices in the wake of population losses. Medieval Europe had reached a demographic impasse. It was the precipitous drop in population that spurred the changes that propelled Europe into the modern era. Population controls shifted from natural checks to preventative measures, including new inheritance practices, revised marriage customs and birth control. New evidence for the plague's role in the establishment of universities, spread of Christianity, dissemination of vernacular cultures and even the rise of nationalism demonstrates that this cataclysmic event marked a true turning point in history.

Herlihy proposed that the Black Death led to "the transformation of the West" and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Briefly and lucidly, Herlihy argued that Europe was...locked into Malthusian stasis, with a population unable to improve its standard of living and possessed of a set of unchanging and stagnating institutions. The Black Death was to shake Europe out of its immobile lethargy and to initiate processes of renewal...Samuel Cohn's succinct introduction provides an excellent commentary on Herlihy's theses. -- Andrew Wear Times Literary Supplement Focusing on the Black Death which reduced the population in some European cities by 80 percent, Herlihy draws some powerful parallels between the plague and AIDS...His argument is a provocative one which will lead other historians to re-examine not only the period of the Black Death but the foundations of medieval and modern medicine. -- Lara Marks History Today The essays offer a number of fresh perspectives on the Black Death, the series of plagues that ravaged Europe after 1347. History [These] essays redefine the historical study of the Black Death...Herlihy's contention is that we can learn from this 'devastating natural disaster'; for example, parallels can be drawn to today's pandemic of AIDS, especially in the resultant bigotries that both engendered...This book, which opens a new chapter on the history and implications of the plague, is essential for all readers of medieval history. Library Journal Herlihy died in 1991, leaving these 1985 lectures among his unpublished papers. In them, he raises questions about the impact of the black death on everyday society, agrarian practices, the use of inventions, travel, and medical theory and practice. Because of their provocative ideas and new ways of looking at older assumptions, they are highly worthy of publication. -- William Beatty Booklist Bold, novel theories, sure to be controversial, about the medieval pandemic known as the Black Death...Herlihy revisits much of the conventional wisdom about the demographic, cultural, and even medical impact of the plague...A stimulating discussion of some rarely considered aspects of one of history's turning points. Kirkus Reviews [A] fine addition to thinking on the [Black Death] and an example of how good historical thought evolves. Publishers Weekly


Introduction Bubonic Plague: Historical Epidemiology and the Medical Problems The New Economic and Demographic System Modes of Thought and Feeling Notes Index

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David Herlihy (d. 1991) was Barnaby Conrad and Mary Critchfield Keeney Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow. Among his books are The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death and Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in the Italian Renaissance.

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