The Black Death

Michiko Kakutani reviews The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly, in the New York Times:

The images could have come from one of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish paintings of hell: dusty roads filled with frightened refugees, many of them already ill, covered in boils and coughing up blood; dogs and rats running wild on deserted streets; fields littered with the dead bodies of cows and sheep; plague pits filled with the corpses of men, women and children; survivors pointing accusatory fingers at Jews and Muslims and outsiders; others flagellating themselves in an effort to appease the heavens.

This was Europe in the 1340’s, the decade of the advent of the Black Death, and in his harrowing new book, “The Great Mortality,” John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of that plague. He notes that on the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, “the medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record,” with only World War II producing “more death, physical destruction, and emotional suffering.” He also points out that a cold war-era study by the United States Atomic Energy Commission found that the Black Death comes closest to mimicking all out nuclear war “in its geographical extent, abruptness of onset and scale of casualties.”

More here.