Daniel Williman

title.none: Herlihy, The Black Death (Williman)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.014 98.09.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel Williman, Professor of Latin and History, Binghamton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Edited with an Introduction by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. 117. $27.00 (hb) ISBN 0-674-07612-5. ISBN: $12.00 (pb) ISBN 0-674-07613-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.14

Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Edited with an Introduction by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. 117. $27.00 (hb) ISBN 0-674-07612-5. ISBN: $12.00 (pb) ISBN 0-674-07613-3.

Reviewed by:

Daniel Williman
Professor of Latin and History, Binghamton University

"We were fortunate to find in Herlihy's stacks of research notes, computer files, and essays three unpublished lectures delivered at the University of Maine in 1985." So, without further identifying the "we," explaining his own standing as editor, or indicating what sorts of changes, to what sorts of original materials, constituted his editorial work, Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. offers these posthumous essays.

Many of David Herlihy's scholarly beneficiaries may wish that his Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200-1430 (New Haven, 1967) had remained his last printed word on the subject of the Black Death. Splendid, thought-provoking university lectures, these pieces suggest novel associations between historical events and make bold applications of sources from social, economic and cultural spheres to the grand conclusion summed up in Cohn's title. The lecturer worked in broad strokes, without the detailed demonstrations of causality which might have shaped and limited his work if he had been writing, citing and editing with publication in mind.

In his Introduction Cohn justifies transferring the lectures to print and publishing them for a wider audience on the ground that between 1967 and 1985 Herlihy's opinions had changed significantly in six ways: he no longer considered the Black Death a socially caused, Malthusian disaster but a biological one; he doubted that it was an epidemic of plague strictly so designated (infection of humans by Yersinia pestis); he considered saints' miracle stories evidence against Yersinia pestis as the infective cause of the 14th- and 15th-century mortalities; he took the Black Death to be the cause, through labor shortage, of technological advance; he had decided that population control shifted in the late middle ages from positive checks that kept the death rate up to preventive checks which kept the birth rate down; and he thought that an increase in Christian names for infants indicated that the plague increased the Christian element in popular culture. The rest of Cohn's Introduction expresses his oppositions, reservations and questions about Herlihy's three chapters to follow.

Sadly reflecting that Herlihy is no longer with us to answer, a reviewer should be brief with the objections. In the first lecture, "Bubonic Plague: Historical Epidemiology and the Medical Problems," the focus seems to shift without notice from the Black Death narrowly designated, the mortality of 1348-9 and possibly its 14th-century recurrences, to the pestilences which continued into the 17th century. Herlihy supposes here that if these pestilences had ever been bubonic there would have been a large mortality of rats, and none seems to have been noticed by contemporaries. However valid his suspicion, he goes nowhere with it, but severs the causal links between social and economic forces (such as mobilized the rats) and the epidemics, quoting with approval (p. 34) Campbell's conclusion that "plague is an exogenous variable." Cohn seems to agree as well, though he quotes the category twice (pp. 4 and 5) as "exogamous," to the reader's initial puzzlement. Herlihy rejects Malthusian "reckoning" as an explanation of the catastrophe, but his rhetoric remains deterministic.

The second lecture, "The New Economic and Demographic System," takes up the causal question after 1348, when the sudden mortality becomes one of the interacting causes. The proposition most clearly demonstrated here is not one of those argued by Herlihy, but one we might call historical chaos: in a regime of more than one causal force, effects cannot be attributed to any one such force uniquely or even proportionally. The effects of one moment are causes the next moment, and all categories shift. One example can be taken from the matricula of a Florentine merchant guild (pp. 44-45); before the numbers registered can be reckoned as effects of the Black Death, the meaning of the matriculation must be assumed constant (a dubious proposition) and the nature of the guild must be understood as a framework. Herlihy treats it like a business firm, seeking to perform profitable tasks with its available personnel; but it was more like a self-selecting club of businessmen, each one seeking membership as a way to private profit. Another example lies in the interpretation of price inflation; Herlihy takes rising prices as evidence of a rising standard of living, but even if that reading could be demonstrated, any curve of (say) wheat prices would have to be weighted according to the secular debasement of all the silver coinages of continental Europe.

Herlihy's prime example of technology born out of labor shortage is the replacement of monastic manuscript book production by printing beginning in the mid-15th century. Cohn points out that population was actually rising along with the production of incunables. The shift was misleadingly constructed in the first place. The texts which appeared in incunables had mostly been the university standards before Gutenberg, produced in city stationers' workshops rather than in monasteries, and therefore by a workforce much more elastic in supply than monks were; and at first, because of the many hands necessary to produce paper of the necessary grade, to found the type, set, ink and press it and so on, labor was noticeably saved only in one task: proofreading.

"Modes of Thought and Feeling," the subject of the last lecture, are even less easy to read by numeric means, but even here something can be gained by forcing the numbers to tell only what they can tell. It was one of Herlihy's purposes in this chapter to show how awareness of Christianity and of saints' cults, with the wish to protect children by naming them after heavenly patrons, is manifested in the names chosen for infants (pp. 73-81). But the number which he seeks to find in different periods is not the ratio of infants named under such influences to total namings; instead, it is the number of different Christian names in use in several registers scattered in different places before and after the Black Death. That the "stock" of Christian names in use increased is significant, it seems, but it remains very unclear how.

If this were the discussion period after a provocative series of lectures, we would all be learning much more from that incisive and creative historian David Herlihy. Unfortunately, it is only a review. Let us close it with a moral warning, applicable alike to memorialists and to publishers: De mortuis, nil nisi bonum.