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  • The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History
  • Shona Kelly Wray
Ole J. Benedictow. The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom, Boydell Press, 2004. xvi, 433 pp., illus. (No price given).

This synthesis of historical studies of the Black Death undertakes two tasks: to track the epidemic from its origin in the Golden Horde in 1346—not [End Page 514] (as some have argued) in China in the 1330s—through its entry into Europe via Italy in late 1347, up to its departure via Russia in 1353; and to determine the percentage of the population that died in each region as a result. The author upholds the traditional argument that the Black Death was caused by bubonic plague and advances a new hypothesis that 60 percent of Europe's population died in the epidemic, a figure that has been proposed previously only for certain localities and never as a general mortality rate. Although this work comes after some years of international debate, it offers no discussion of the current historical and scientific literature that seeks to determine what disease caused the epidemic.

The epidemic is described using a military metaphor with the disease as a ruthless general, and travelers, rats, and fleas as his troops. The rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, has the predominant role, since it lives on fur, travels on clothing, and can live on grain for sustained periods. Benedictow dismisses any significant contribution by the human flea, Pulex irritans, since it is a nest flea living in bedding and avoiding light and travel. The primary killer was bubonic plague, not the more virulent pneumonic or septicemic forms, which would have killed their victims before they had a chance to spread the disease. The Black Death, then, was the same disease that struck nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, but the reader is left to ponder why this disease had such monstrously different mortality rates in its medieval and modern episodes. Benedictow estimates that it moved along main commercial arteries at an average of two kilometers a day, or much more rapidly via ships, in what he calls "metastatic leaps"; he demonstrates that the plague infected all regions of Europe except Iceland, and that it did not spare Belgium as previously thought. Benedictow has produced a useful map of this spread. In order to determine the date that the plague arrived in a particular locality, Benedictow applies a formula of a six- to eight-week delay between the entry of plague in a given region and its first mention by local chroniclers, which is derived from an estimation of the time required for the disease to pass through an epizootic phrase, move on to humans from starved fleas, and, after incubation, result in the number of deaths among the elite classes that would prompt documentation by chroniclers. Although such a methodological tool can be useful when applied to sufficient data, Benedictow relies on it even if the death date is known for only one person from a given locality. Moreover, the formula should not be applied indiscriminately, because it assumes that chroniclers would not record an epidemic until after it had decimated the poor and moved on to the elites, even though some chroniclers did mention the poor. Similarly, he assumes that testamentary evidence would record only the later, or elite, phase of the epidemic, but this disregards the fact that in some areas non-elites commonly made wills, as, for example, in urban Italy. [End Page 515]

The second part of the book reworks previously published data on the mortality rates of the Black Death in order to assert a much higher population decline. The numbers remaining after the epidemic are decreased by Benedictow because households had shrunk (so the household coefficient applied is smaller), and because inflated numbers due to immigration after the epidemic have to be subtracted. He further increases mortality rates for all areas, arguing for the "supermortality" of women, children, and the poor. Thus, rates previously argued at 40 to 45 percent are revised upward to 55 to 60 percent. Studies based on cohorts of individuals instead of households that result in mortality rates too low for Benedictow...


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