William Chester Jordan

title.none: Benedictow, Black Death (William Chester Jordan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.004 05.02.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Chester Jordan, Princeton University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xix, 443. $50.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-85115-943-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.04

Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xix, 443. $50.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-85115-943-5.

Reviewed by:

William Chester Jordan
Princeton University

Let me say, first of all, that the author of this book has achieved a Herculean task in reviewing a very large part of the literature on the pestilential disease or set of diseases that afflicted Europe from 1346 to 1353. For those who can tolerate retrospective diagnoses, he persuasively argues that the principal disease was plague, specifically in its bubonic form, despite the endless efforts of other retrospective diagnosticians to argue otherwise. He then assembles a set of so-called "standard assumptions" about the course of the plague, and this allows him to identify the point of origin of the pandemic and to map the spread of the plague. Where the plague appears to defy geographical barriers, he attempts to explain why these "metastatic leaps" were possible. And where there is no explicit mention of plague or direct evidence of population decline for a region, he uses his standard assumptions and, if possible, other sources to infer its existence. In doing so, he believes he can put to rest the impression that the plague skipped parts of the Low Countries and Poland, but he affirms that it did not reach Iceland and did not ravage Finland. He then estimates the mortality region by region and finally overall. He concludes that 60% of the European population died in the roughly seven years of the pandemic. In the last few pages, he suggests, not surprisingly, that a catastrophe of this magnitude was a turning point in history, but this is more a gesture to other historians to pursue this line of thought than a fully developed argument in itself.

Anyone who reads this book from cover to cover as I did will find it a tough slog. If one dips in from time to time or is only interested in one region and reads the sections of the book devoted to that region, the experience, I am sure, will be different and more positive. But taken as a whole, this may be the most repetitive book I have ever read. Particularly benumbing is the use of an extended military metaphor to describe the spread of the plague. One or two references to the "armies" of the Black Death and the "genius" of its invasion tactics might have been quaint or at least cute, but hundreds which reify the pestilence along with its "deployments" and land and naval "strategies" are a plague in themselves. The author also often seems to me to be imperious and condescending to the people who endured the catastrophe. For example, he distrusts the statistics they offer in chronicles, as do most medievalists, but would most medievalists write that "magical and mythological numbers" attracted their subjects of study because "they preferred [them] over tedious and vulgar empirical observations"? (70)

The subtitle of this book, The Complete History, is misleading. Scholars interested in art and music, religious devotion, culture in general, will find only a few generalities on these subjects. A well-written and up-to-date comprehensive book on the pandemic we have come to call the Black Death is therefore still a considerable desideratum.