The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 356-357

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Book Review

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

David Herlihy. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Edited by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. 117 pp. $27.00 (cloth), $12.00 (paperbound).

This volume encompasses the text of three unpublished lectures of Professor Herlihy, rescued from the legacy of his research notes by the editor, who has also provided a useful critical introduction and editorial amplification. The central thesis of the work is to be found in the title--the transformation of the West. Herlihy recognized a positive aspect to the catastrophe of the Black Death: a fresh start affording society and the economy an opportunity to move, and perhaps progress, in many alternative directions, thus breaking a relatively static equilibrium, a Malthusian deadlock.

The initial lecture approaches the question of the disease itself. Herlihy rightly questions the generally assumed etiology of the Black Death: was the agent the same as, or closely related to, that of present-day plague? He forcefully points out the greatest discrepancy, a lack of contemporary comments concerning rat epizootics paralleling the human epidemics; but his approach then becomes diffuse, based on the definition of contemporary verbal expressions and a need for the disease to fulfill all kinds of descriptions, be they contradictory or casual. Remarkably, Herlihy ignores the historical continuity initiated by the Black Death, which was followed in western and central Europe first by three centuries of extraordinarily high mortality and consistent disease descriptions, then by continued activity in eastern Europe and the near East, and finally, by a retreat to Asia. He is left with an undefined residue, a disease that simply appeared and soon disappeared, which is always a possibility but is essentially an untestable hypothesis.

Herlihy's view of the Malthusian crisis appears mechanistic: a too-numerous population calling forth an immediate, certain, and drastic readjustment. However, epidemics relate more to probabilities, requiring the presence of active foci of the etiologic agent and favorable contributing factors such as demographic state, population mobility, trade, climate, and so forth. In the second lecture he discusses resultant changes in inflation; the relative values of rents, land, labor, and capital; and the relation of wage costs to increased efficiency, the introduction of new techniques, and alternative choices for capital investment.

The final lecture explores the changing mode of thought and feeling. Formal religious practices deteriorated when the survivors were faced with the horror of the many dead, and with rising fears of contagion. On the other hand, pilgrimages and spontaneous religious movements abounded. Herlihy proposed using the increased adoption of saints' names for children as a measure of a gradual rise in religious feeling. The disruptions in families also led to a greater regard for children, as attested to by larger provisions in wills; while at the same time those on the margins of society, particularly Jews and strangers, were regarded with intensified suspicion. The heavy losses among the members of trades and guilds, among professionals and scholars, led to an immediate deterioration of [End Page 356] quality but also stimulated reform and renewal. As one example, the small number of old international universities suffered from losses among students and faculties. But, at the same time, the need for clergy and professionals, aided by expanded benefactions, led to a rise in national universities, which in turn promoted cultural nationalism and eventually theological schisms.

The author and editor recognize the difficulty of defining precise causal relationships governing the social and economic changes because of the multiplicity of potential determinants and the variable time lag between cause and effect. They also point out the need for a great breadth of studies, rather than basing conclusions solely on a given limited region. This work is not a detailed study, but a stimulating overview by a mature mind.

Edward A. Eckert
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, emeritus