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Book Review: The Black Death

“Between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed at least one third of Europe’s inhabitants,” declares the back cover of Philip Ziegler’s work on the bubonic plague. The numbers alone are enough to seize a reader’s attention.

Ziegler offers more, however: He serves as a humorous and thought-provoking tour guide through every twist and corner of the calamity, introducing readers to the complexity of the plague’s spread without sacrificing the wider picture. 

The preface establishes Ziegler’s intention to survey existing scholarship rather than contribute original research. He is unapologetic to potential critics, concluding with characteristically mischievous aplomb: “If this book should chance to provoke some academic historian – incensed by its inadequacy – into engaging in a major work of scholarship, then it will have served a useful purpose.”

A Tour of Medieval Europe

Ziegler begins with a chapter of introduction each for both the plague and medieval Europe, then launches into a tour of the continent. He saves the reader from bogging down in what could have been a monotonous reiteration of stomach-churning disasters by highlighting a different aspect of the plague in each country. In France, for example, he focuses on medieval medical knowledge, while in Germany he examines the rise of the flagellants and outbreaks of violence against Jewish communities.

The bulk of the book belongs to England, a choice that Ziegler defends on the grounds that the historical records there are most complete. Region by region, he investigates the evidence and whatever conclusions the scholar can safely glean from it. The overview concludes with contrasting commentary on Wales, Ireland, and Scotland as perhaps less affected than the English.

To knit together this sprawling account, Ziegler offers a five-part conclusion: First, he fleshes out his narrative by creating a fictional account of Blakwater, an imaginary representative of the afflicted English village. Second, he plunges into the raw statistical analysis of calculating death tolls. In the final three chapters, he considers the plague’s impact on socio-economics; “education, agriculture, and architecture;” and “the church and man’s mind.”

He ends with a poetic flourish, invoking Shakespearean theater to depict the psychological injury done to medieval man: “Poor Tom survived, but he was never to be quite the same again.”

“Black” Humor

Readers will not find The Black Death as depressing as the topic would suggest, thanks to the author’s piquant style and skillful handling of “black” humor. He spices the bleaker narrative liberally with amusing anecdotes that give a human face to the disaster. To illustrate the challenges facing religious authorities during the plague, for instance, he shares a series of unfortunate events that ended happily for at least one person involved:

“Abbot Nicholas had been deprived of his office by the Bishop because of some now forgotten offence. Bishop Gynewell nominated two administrators to look after the Abbey pending the nomination of a new Abbot but on 13 May two of the senior brethren arrived to report that the first of his nominees was dead and the life of the second despaired of. He named in their place the two monks who had brought the news and sent them on their way. His new appointments met with no greater success; both monks were dead before they reached the Abbey. In despair Abbot Nicholas was forgiven and reinstated.”

Another example from his evaluation of the impact on the medieval church creates a similar effect:

“During and immediately after the plague the usual rules governing the ordination of priests were virtually abandoned… Bishop of Norwich obtained a dispensation to allow sixty clerks aged twenty-one or less to hold rectories on the grounds, more or less categorically stated, that they would be better than nothing.”

Finding humor in the absurd situations created by the plague’s devastating impact does not detract from the sense of tragedy; rather, these stories balance the staggering numbers and horrific accounts with a welcome reminder of the human spirit’s resilience.

Overall, Ziegler’s writing is witty and personable, conveying the feel of a fireside conversation without compromising his scholarly authority. He provides persuasive analysis of primary texts and academic research, with an annotated bibliography and detailed index to assist serious scholars with further studies.

Insistence on Uncertainty

The Black Death proves less straightforward than the title implies, however: Ziegler focuses not so much on the bubonic plague, as on the difficulties of studying the plague and researching the Middle Ages in general. The thread weaving together all the colorful stories and meticulous calculations is the author’s insistence on uncertainty. He repeatedly emphasizes the paucity of statistics, further hampered by inconsistent or suspect firsthand accounts, to caution scholars and readers alike against making any definite claims. 

Ziegler’s conscientious approach borders on over-cautious in the final discussion of the plague’s consequences for Europe. He painstakingly considers each thesis in turn, weighing such possibilities as that the black death may have liberated the serfs, ended an overpopulation crisis, or dealt the first blow against the supremacy of the Roman Catholic church. After digesting countless rebuttals, refutations, and counterclaims, it is tempting to give up in frustration when he wraps up the discussion of the plague’s impact without reaching any more definite conclusion than ‘there was some.’

The analysis on the medieval condition further suffers from Ziegler’s pervasive secularism. So far from sharing medieval Christians’ religious views that he cannot even pretend sympathy, he doesn’t blush to blame the effects of the plague on their spiritual beliefs:

“The European, in the face of the Black Death, was in general overwhelmed by a sense of inevitable doom… The Black Death descended on a people who were drilled by their theological and their scientific training into a reaction of apathy and fatalistic resignation. Nothing could have provided more promising material on which a plague might feed.”

The one-sidedness of this narrative becomes apparent when compared to Ziegler’s account of individuals’ heroic responses to the plague. Although he doesn’t skimp on praising individual clergy for their bravery or wisdom, neither does he consider whether their praiseworthy actions could be attributed to their religious beliefs as much as their “apathy and fatalistic resignation” might. The result is a distorted assessment of religion’s role in medieval Europe.

Satisfying the Curious Amateur

Written for both the lay reader and the scholar, The Black Death inevitably couldn’t make both happy. The chapter of ‘historical fiction’ adds welcome personal color, for instance, but the effect is then overrun by pages on pages of number-crunching. It may interest the academic reader to follow Ziegler’s blow-by-blow accounts of scholars’ disagreements over estimating the exact percentage of plague victims in any given population, and the overall effect leaves no doubt of his care for accuracy. The general public will struggle to enjoy it, however.

Nonetheless, Ziegler achieves his stated goal of marshaling a vast field of minute studies into an orderly overview of the topic. Whereas his analysis sometimes disappoints, the study’s range and variety will satisfy the curious amateur. If not for his scholarly treatment of the subject, Ziegler’s work deserves a read for its novel approach and lively narration.

Author: Kittie Helmick

Kittie Helmick studied Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford, after serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa. Her desire to speak truth in grace led her to found Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing and its predecessor GoodTrueBeautiful. She has also published critiques of pop culture on The Critic, The Federalist, and Patheos.

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