The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West
Book Review by John Rocco Roberto

Authored by David Herlihy

Edited with an Introduction by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.
117 pages.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Before his untimely death in 1991 David Herlihy presented three lectures examining the Black Death and in doing so redefined the entire historical outlook on the great plague.  These speeches may have been lost, if it were not for Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., who collected Herlihy’s lectures and notes and presented them in a concise tome.  According to Herlihy although the Black Death had a devastating affected on everything in European society, it kept European culture from getting stale.  While historians originally viewed the “great plague” as a disaster that hit Europe and set European society back 100s of years, Herlihy sees the “death” as a liberating force, pushing European society forward, destroying it, but at the same time transforming it, spurring new growth and possibilities.  There is a reason according to Herlihy, “that the…characteristics of the population collapse of the late Middle Ages [were] Europe’s deepest and also its last.”
Herlihy’s thesis is a simple, yet revolutionary one: that the Black Death created the demand for labor saving devices as the population dwindled, and this in turn pushed European society forward.  While most historians approached the subject from a political and military aspect, Herlihy looks at the social effects of the plague on women, art, and society in general, and comes to the conclusion that the plague was, in the long run, a good thing for Europe.
The book itself is divided into three major parts reflecting the lectures that Herlihy had delivered at the University of Maine in 1985.  Cohn adds an introduction and an extensive section of End Notes, but overly keeps Herlihy’s text intact.  The first chapter explores the idea that the plague itself may not have been bubonic plague, which is the standard historical theory to this day.  “Medical writers of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages,” writes Herlihy, “recognized only one type of epidemic disease marked by only one kind of symptom, inflammations, boils, or buboes in the area of the groin, [which] the authority of the ancients may have blinded later witnesses to other symptoms, indicating the presence of other types of epidemic disease.”       To back up his argument Herlihy knocks down the age-old notion that the plague was spread by infected rats, moving throughout Europe.  If, according to Herlihy, the “death” was bubonic, then there should be evidence of an epizootic within the rat population.  “To my knowledge,” Herlihy states, “not a single Western chronicler notes the occurrence of [such] an epizootic, the massive mortalities of rats, which ought to have preceded and accompanied the human plague.”   For Herlihy, the disease that ravaged Europe was most likely anthrax.  “Anthrax can produce the characteristic swellings which might be mistaken for buboes.”
The second and third chapters of the book delve into the economic impact of the plague on European society, and how that society rebounded from it.  For years historians have look at the reasons behind the cause for the plague as a “Malthusian crisis.”  That the population had just grown too big for the land to sustain it.  Herlihy disagrees with this thesis, and sees European society before the plague in more of a social deadlock, which societal numbers maintaining themselves.  “The medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in a sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period.”   To back up these arguments Herlihy relies on several medieval sources, including documents from the city of Tuscany.  “In spite of frequent famine and widespread hunger, the community in ca. 1300 was successfully holding its numbers.”   It is necessary to point out however, that Herlihy’s argument that the Black Death was in reality anthrax relies too heavily on sources from Italy, and one can find just as persuasive arguments to support the standard notion of bubonic plague.  In fact Cohn shines skepticism on this theory himself in his introduction.  Yet despite this slight flaw within the first section of the book, Herlihy’s argument as presented in the second and third chapters, that the plague was a catalyst and driving force for change within Europe, is well supported.
The Black Death “gave to Europeans the chance to rebuild their society along much different lines,”  the author writes.  The unprecedented drain on the labor force, especially devastating because of the feudal society, drove the need to produce labor saving devices, and thus broke the “stalemate” of that feudal society.  “Europe at the time of the plague…was a society reeling under repeated, powerful shocks; burdened with huge numbers of dependents; struggling with difficulty to maintain its occupational cadres; struggling also to uphold the quality of its skilled traditions.”   Herlihy clearly put into perspective the situation that existed during feudal times, explaining how land use and societal class differences stagnated European culture.  The plague, killing off large numbers of the labor force, created a situation in which the surviving Europeans, both Nobel and peasant classes, had to adapt in order to survive.  “Above all [the plague] freed resources…mills and mill sites…[that] could now be enlisted for other uses; the fulling of cloth, the operation of bellows, the sawing of wood.”   While the horror of the disease took a great toll on the families who lived through it, in the long run “the late Middle Ages were a period of impressive technological achievement.”
To arrive at his thesis Herlihy uses an interdisciplinary approach to the Black Death, using comparative narative, as well as a social and medical historic approach, to try and develop a model of how the disease progressed and how populations reacted.  To expound on the latter, the author uses modern approaches as one way of trying to allow the reader to relate to the overwhelming effects the disease had on Europe.  To do so Herlihy creates a comparative analysis with the AIDS virus, and how people reached at first to both AIDS today (homophobic feelings) and the Black Death (anti-Semitism).
To support his arguments Herlihy relies on Church sources from the 1300s, focusing on marriage and death records, drawing most of his data from Italy.  This is one flaw of his work, but should be of no surprise to readers’ familiar to the author’s other works, as Herlihy is a Medieval Italian historian.  Therefore most of his research focuses on the effect of the Black Death in Italy, and uses literature of the times (poetry and songs), to try and paint an entire picture of medieval life at the time.  To even further understand the social impact of the plague on 1300 society, Herlihy uses as secondary sources monographs, and newspaper articles for comparison with modern plagues.  The concentration on Italian sources however, is a weakness in his thesis, as it does not take into effect the Black Death in England, France, and several other European nations.  The book ends with an extensive section of End Notes, taken from Herlihy’s “incomplete” notes, and expanded upon by Cohn.  This section also serves as a Bibliography, and points the reader to other sources of information.  In addition Cohn uses the notes to expand on Herlihy’s lectures, providing new and updated information, and sometimes contradicting the author himself.
Unfortunately the book falls short in several places, especially in light of examining other societies that fell victim to the plague.  Herlihy seems to gloss over the fact that the Black Death was a pandemic that effected more than just the people of Europe, and nether Herlihy (or Cohn for that matter), addresses the questions as to why the Middle East, also effected by the plague, did not experience the same cultural resurgence Europe did after the epidemic.  Nor are the effects of plague on China mentioned.  China in the 14th century was also hit hard by epidemics almost identical as that as the Black Death, yet China started falling behind Europe soon afterwards.  Surely if the devastation of its society was the catalyst which prompted innovation in Europe, would it not have had the same effects in China and the Middle East?  It is possible that the European transformation can just as easily be explained by a different theory: the influences of the Mongol Empire.  The Mongol Empire, which crumbled around the same time as the Black Death was ravaging Europe, had transmitted much of China’s technology (gunpowder, paper) to Europe.  Over time, as these innovations slowly caught on within European society, these technological changes would have taken place regardless of the death of so much of its population.  It may be that it is more to the Mongols than the plague that Europe is what it is today.
Overall what Herlihy and Cohn have achieved here is to present a theory that asked the question, was the Black Death a bad event, or good event for European society?  In and of itself it poses a grand question, and allows the reader to rethink previous views regarding Europe during the 1300s.  While readers interested in a more traditional “history” of the great plague will be disappointed, serious scholars will find Herlihy’s arguments provocative, and thought provoking.  Despite its few flaws, Herlihy’s The Black Death and the Transformation of the West is an excellent collection which challenges the views of mainstream history, and that is always a good thing.

Review © 2005 John Rocco Roberto/Visagraph Films International.