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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 1998 > Bookshelf Detail


A Dark Mirror

Michael McVaugh

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. David Herlihy. Samuel K. Cohn Jr., ed. 117 pp. Harvard University Press, 1997. $12.

The Black Death of the 14th century holds an intense fascination for people familiar with the period and those unfamiliar alike. David Herlihy belonged to the former group; in the course of a career devoted to studying the social history of early Renaissance Italy, he came to see the epidemic as a watershed event in European history. In 1985, six years before he died, he gave three lectures at the University of Maine that argued specifically for the plague's transforming effect. These lectures addressed the disease's causes, Europe's susceptibility to it, its economic and demographic effects and its consequences for what Herlihy called "modes of thought and feeling."

It is not altogether clear what lies behind the lectures' publication now. Herlihy presented very definite conclusions: There was no good evidence that the Black Death had been an episode of bubonic plague; it might have been anthrax or something as yet unidentified; whatever it was, it attacked a Europe that was heavily populated but not, as some historians had argued, in a state of Malthusian crisis; the results of this catastrophic mortality, which struck first and most dramatically in the 1340s but recurred regularly thereafter, were in the long run to liberate resources for a diversifying European economy and to encourage the introduction of technology that could substitute for newly expensive labor; it encouraged the foundation of new universities to replace the losses among the educated elite but also led to the dissolution of traditional patterns of medical or philosophical thought; among the rest of the population it broadened and intensified religious consciousness and promoted a particular style of intercessory piety.

It is because of such effects, Herlihy argued, that we must understand the Black Death as having made it possible for later medieval Europeans "to rebuild their society along much different lines." Yet as Samuel Cohn suggests in his introduction to this volume, many of Herlihy's specific conclusions might well have to be modified if not abandoned today. For example, historians would no longer accept that, as he suggested, the plague enforced changes in medical theory and brought about a rise in the relative prestige of surgery.

If this is not a book to be studied for its answers, it can usefully be read for its questions—not just because it exposes suggestively the major points of continuing debate over the nature and historical effect of the Black Death (as indeed it does) but also because it calls readers to reflect on their own society. The 1348 plague had always been implicit in the background of Herlihy's earlier historical writing, but what led him to talk at length about it in 1985 was the contemporary emergence of AIDS, which is a leitmotif in these lectures. He evoked parallels between the ways in which the 14th and 20th centuries reacted to the appearance of a mysterious, catastrophic epidemic in their midst—with fear of the stranger and suspicion of the experts who offered a security in which people did not believe. This little book may not be a major contribution to our understanding of the Black Death as a historical event, but it has the occasional power to do what historical writing should do: encourage us to think more deeply about ourselves.—Michael R. McVaugh, History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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