2005, Books, Non-Fiction

The Great Mortality (2005) by John Kelly

This is a frustrating book, which I learned a lot from but also had me rolling my eyes way, way more than it ever should have. It purports to be a history of the Black Death but it’s a really a European history – maybe that’s a tacit assumption given the title – and there is a clear English bias to the whole thing. It’s also extremely flowery in a way I’m not used to with history.

So, on the good side of things we have the level of detail: Kelly has done an absolute ton of research and if you were looking for a readable, accessible history of the Black Death that also uses a ton of primary sources – well, you have it here. He also takes time to fight back against those who would rewrite history to claim this was something other than plague. And his final chapter on the consequences of the whole thing is thought-provoking if a little underwritten and broad. (It’s still quite interesting.) There’s lots of information here, it’s presented clearly and I certainly learned as much as I think I’d ever care to about the Black Death.

But this is an extraordinarily euro-centric history. Is it because of the lack of primary sources from elsewhere? Kelly doesn’t say. Is it because he called it The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, which implies a European focus because that’s what the Europeans called it? Kelly never explicitly says. And that’s a little weird, right?

And when we get to England, things get more detailed than anywhere else. Now, that’s in part because the English appear to have done a better job of record keeping. But it also appears to be typical English chauvinism. Yes, he gently mocks the English for how xenophobic they were, but he also admires how they behaved. And he spends far more time describing the English countryside than he does any other country. Is this because he is English? I don’t know anything about the man but I’d bet money he is very English, if you know what I mean. The care he takes to describe England as a placed compared to any other place (save Avignon) is striking.

The language is incredibly flowery and often laugh-out-loud flowery. A few times I had to read lines out me girlfriend as I rolled my eyes again at how “literary” he was trying to sound. This book would be shorter if there weren’t so many adjectives. (“Pestilential” is his favourite, hands down.) I want to learn from history, I don’t want someone showering me in their vocabulary. (The most egregious example is his failure to tell the reader what a tarbagan is. My browser doesn’t believe tarbagan is a word which should tell you how common it is. Good thing the internet exists.)

And lastly, there are the weird asides, where Kelly wades into controversy for a moment. They are peppered throughout the book, though I noticed more early on. The worst one is the climate change minimizing – it’s not outright denial – which is super brief and unnecessary. He claims a source says warming climate is good for farmers. Well, maybe it’s good for European farmers but, you know, there are other people in the world who don’t live in temperate climates and middle latitudes. (Also, how many people are still farming exactly?) It’s just another example of the over-the-top euro-centrism of this book.

I learned a lot and I appreciate the level of his research. But he strikes me as a bit of an ass. I don’t want to have lunch with him, that’s for sure.


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