- The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History
Ole J. Benedictow has written a provocative and learned, if also at times irritating, book. Surely, few topics deserve an extended treatment more than "plague" and surely few authors are more qualified to write a "complete history" than Benedictow, whose list of publications on "plague" is extensive. His claim that this is a "complete history" (he does not pretend that it is a final history) proves valid in the sense that he has exhaustively mined the extensive secondary literature available and this allows him to present a comprehensive discussion of the demographic impact of "plague." He has scraped together the many pieces and bits of information scattered about in often obscure articles and books (in several languages) and has successfully synthesized it. For this achievement alone, he deserves praise. But his history remains very incomplete in other ways. In concentrating almost solely on the demographic impact of "plague" — a crucially important topic, certainly — Benedictow ignores a mountain of social and cultural history. In some ways, this is not particularly important because Benedictow's emphasis lies elsewhere. Still, one wonders if a complete history can be considered complete when it restricts its purview to a single aspect.
One thoroughly admires the tenacity and skill with which Benedictow pursues his quarry. Undoubtedly, his most impressive contribution is to amass a wealth of secondary material in support of his central argument: that the impact of "plague" was more widespread and more catastrophic than generally believed. In short, the "one-third mortality" most historians accept as the overall European decline due to "plague" needs to be drastically revised upwards, to at least sixty percent and perhaps more. Additionally, Benedictow demonstrates that the real impact of plague was in the countryside (where mortalities often exceeded those in cities) and that areas previously believed to have escaped or been hit only lightly — such as the Low Countries — in fact suffered grievously. Equally sophisticated is his detailed discussion of the means of transmission and particular conditions that facilitated the spread of various forms of the disease. He carefully differentiates, for instance, between the primary and secondary forms of "bacteraemic" and "pneumonic" plague. These trenchant insights and critical reassessments are worthy of [End Page 599] the historian's serious attention. Likewise of value are Benedictow's detailed explanations of exactly how "plague" moved so quickly across vast distances, for example, by "metastatic leaps," which he defines as "spread by a leap at a considerable distance that causes the establishment of a new epicentre of epidemic spread" (18). Still, the general conclusions offered here — that ships and sea transport were vital in the rapid spread of plague — do not seem strikingly different from what historians have generally understood to be the effective transmission mechanisms.
All this seems so important and so valuable for the historian (or anyone else interested in "plague") that one might wonder why this reviewer also found his work "irritating." It has surely not escaped the reader's attention that this review has consistently placed "plague" in quotation marks. Benedictow's use of term Black Death is, of course, anachronistic; it is a nineteenth-century commonplace and no one in the Middle Ages used the term. He is surely cognizant of this. More disturbing, however, is his unquestioned assumption that the "plague" of the mid-fourteenth century was identical with that caused by the pathogen Yersinia pestis discovered in Hong Kong by two bacteriologists, S. Kitasato and A. Yersin, in 1894. Benedictow is relentlessly positivistic. The mid-fourteenth-century disease that killed millions was for him undoubtedly the same as the one that raged in China and India in the late nineteenth century. And he bases his calculations of mortality and timing on just that "fact." He goes to some length to prove that the two forms of disease were identical, but this is a historically-fraught form of retrodiagnosis that most medical and social historians shy away from (although, to be fair...