restricted access The Structure of Plagues and Pestilences in Early Modern Europe: Central Europe, 1560-1640 (review)
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Reviewed by
Edward A. Eckert. The Structure of Plagues and Pestilences in Early Modern Europe: Central Europe, 1560–1640. Basel: Karger, 1996. x + 180 pp. Tables. $156.50.

Two decades of painstaking work went into this historical epidemiology of plague in west central Europe. Eckert located and analyzed surviving records from eight hundred German parishes. Limiting the study to the years from 1560 to 1640, he then determined the average level of annual mortality (a moving average that did not assume fixed population size in the parish) and the crisis years, wherein mortality exceeded at least three times the average yearly burials. (Eckert is far more precise about the calculations than this summary suggests.) The rigor in analysis provides considerable confidence about his conclusions. However, most of the time parish officials do not note the cause of death, so Eckert has had to use a multiplicity of epidemiological and historical criteria to determine the probable cause of any given parish crisis.

Plague accounted for most of the crisis mortality in German-speaking regions during this time period. Eckert shows that recurrent plague was rural as much as urban, visiting small agricultural regions twice per decade. In severe crises mortality rates of 20 to more than 40 percent occurred—staggering levels, showing little decline in overall plague mortality since the terrible fourteenth century. Eckert takes great care to analyze the spread of plague over time and space, showing that particularly hard hit regions were assaulted sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially by plagues generated during the last years of a cycle within the region. Plague spread from maritime regions along the North Sea coast and down the Rhine river valley, and westward overland from eastern Europe. Baden-Württemberg and the Rhenish Palatinate effectively became areas that seeded plague to many other regions, operating as an inland source of plague resembling the role more commonly attributed to great Mediterranean ports. Yet Eckert shows that central Europe was not infected, at least by this time, from Mediterranean areas. Instead, northern Italy and some parts of Iberia may have been vulnerable to plague moving from north to south. Plague in central Europe was thus “recycled,” came overland slowly from eastern Europe, or came from northern maritime trade. Some rural plagues occurred in winter, and were pneumonic or a mixture of pneumonic and bubonic, but never with overwhelming loss of life such as happened in Manchuria in the 1920s.

Two aspects of this book limit its overall contribution and appeal. First, Eckert’s prose needed far heavier copyediting. Consider just one typical example: “An initial examination of the spatial-temporal distribution of communal plague outbreaks in the interior of central Europe during this period suggests that a system describing the areal and temporal relationships may fruitfully be proposed since a high degree of order can be recognized” (p. 75). Moreover, the maps show us where his data revealed crises, but not where data were unavailable, and thus some parts of the study are both confusing and tedious to read. In both graphic and verbal analysis Eckert’s attention to minutiae has overwhelmed the competing need to clarify and simplify for a wider audience.

Second, Eckert seems to have missed a few important, recent studies of early modern plagues—using, for example, J. F. D. Shrewsbury, A History of Bubonic [End Page 110] Plague in the British Isles (1970), rather than Paul Slack’s Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (1985). Eckert has not followed the close work of historical demographers, in particular missing Myron Gutmann’s work (War and Rural Life in the Early Modern Low Countries [1980]), which might have led him to reconsider some of his conclusions about the impact of nonplague plagues. These omissions do not compromise his analysis of the data; they merely limit his analysis of historical changes. For example, Eckert shows forcefully that the region of south central Europe that was most often missed by waves or cycles of plague was Bavaria, and he concludes that small village size or a greater distance between villages best explained this relative immunity; instead, his study may be a very good illustration of how profound the divide between...