Books : reviews

Dorsey Armstrong.
The Black Death: new lessons from recent research.
Great Courses. 2022

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 1 June 2023

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the short 7 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each 30 minute lecture, a few pictures, some suggested reading, and a few questions to think about. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is an update of the earlier course on the Black Death, which I haven't seen. The aim is to present the latest research in the context of that course; however, it does stand alone well.

The main new things learned are the source of the plague: not China, but somewhere further west, where it spread outwards, reaching China and Europe at about the same time. There is also some fascinatingly gruesome accounts of rat behaviour, and why you don't need to worry about plague until all the rats have died: plague fleas much prefer rat hosts, and only transfer to humans when they are desperate. Also, there was essentially only one introduction of the plague to Europe; the continual flare-ups over the centuries were from the same source.

There were some interesting social perspectives, too. One is that the Black Death changed the world so much, reducing the population, giving labour more power, that the 100 Years War was mostly about giving the nobles something to do. But also, with so many people dying, and others left orphaned or otherwise destitute, led to the establishment of social welfare programmes throughout Europe: the survivors pulled together. Armstrong wonders, maybe the reason the US has such poor healthcare is that it didn't live through 400 years of plague?

The fact that this was recorded during the Covid pandemic led to some acid asides about how to deal with the spread of infections, and to some empathy for how Europeans felt not knowing when a plague outbreak would end, when it would recur, and watching so many people die.