The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

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I am guilty of literally judging a book by its cover; reading the title alone I didn’t think I was going to like it. After the introduction ended, I began to reassess my initial judgement. Personally, I feel that this collection of articles written by David Herlihy, to better understand them, the book should have been rewritten in layman’s terms. Written in more common terminology I feel like it would be comprehended easier. Trying to understand the elaborate train of thought is like trying to follow a needle through a hay stack. Admittingly the idea that Western Europe needed a pandemic to resurrect the country from succumbing to suicide of itself is a quizzical concept from Herlihy. I think Giovanni Villani had the right mind to think that people’s greed or some other reason caused God, not forces, to enact something to bring people back from edge they were balancing on.

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In the topic of the first chapter, it details out information about each type of bacilli that infects a human to create the plague, how long it lasts and where it might come from. One of the most probable contagions of the plague were rats, which the plague is the most memorable for. However, there are three types; bubonic which produces buboes in the lymph node areas, septicemic which invades the blood stream and pneumonic is when bacillus triggers pneumonia. Bubonic is the most common beating the others by three fourths of occurrences. I can remember watching an episode of NCIS when Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo becomes infected with some strain of pestilent. I understand it now to be the pneumonic plague, because he had pneumonia and sneezed on another agent which they rushed to assume she became infected. In the show they originally thought it was anthrax like the zoologist Graham Twigg argued. But because Herlihy was using new sources while referring to older sources he determined that it wasn’t anthrax. New information shows that the diagnosis of bubonic plague is the famous one that produces the buboes of lymph nodes. But then after he affirms this information he goes on to questioning it, which makes me question if there was ever a true, fills every checklist box, illness. Is there something that can blatantly characterize these diseases to draw a clear conclusion? This chapter scientifically explains the infection of the plague, which is the part I am more interested in due to my interest in veterinary medicine and biology.

The stuff that makes Herlihy’s book makes me question, is the Malthusian idea that somehow the ‘world’ itself has a cause and effect that happens to control sustainability of an environment. The Malthusian theory is a system of checks and balances for population versus subsistence of the area’s environment. If the population surpasses the production of food, shelter, and resources the country will then need negative checks such as famines and illnesses to regain balance sociality and economically. The famine that happened right before the plague, people say predisposed the malnourished people to the disease. I can relate to this with my background in biology that bacteria need nutrients from their host to survive. If the host doesn’t have the nutrients, they cannot make more of themselves. The text even says that women and growing children with anemia could possibly have some immunity to the plague, this makes me wonder if this is a way to make a cure or preventative medicine. There were additional theories but regardless the stalemate of Europe was broken by an outside force, which jump started Europe to rebuild. While the economy is starting to rebuild from the plague, the demographics also took a hit.

The second essay discusses the demographic system of the time after the plague. Herlihy explains that social classes experienced a slight change. Gravediggers were in high commodity to bury the infected and dead bodies. This promoted out-of-the-norm situations but gave people jobs when they needed them. Physicians were obviously in high demand, but due to the inability to stop the plague there was distrust in the medical expertise. I feel like hospitals should be to do anything, but they can’t. The doctors and nurses don’t play God they can only do as much as humanly possible. With mass casualties of all trades, survivors had to step up to fill the spots. This allowed women to serve more important roles in the system changing the social levels for a win. People who had experience with trade or relatives with trade had to teach people that trade because of the rapid deaths, trades people were becoming a rarity. That is terrifying to think of, you oversee teaching other people just trying to out survive a wave of death.

In the final chapter it discusses the religious aspects of the essays. It mentions a group of Jews that were killed because there was rumor that went around saying they were the source of the epidemic. This was unacceptable, the flat-out murder of human beings out of fear. This rumor spread like a wild fire and endangered people’s lives just because of what they believed in. I heard somewhere, maybe on a show or movie, that being scared is okay but allowing fear to control you is not. If I was back in the ages of the plague I am not sure what I would have done, but I don’t ever think I would intentionally go out and murder people for the religion they practice. That is like saying it is okay to kill a person just based off the color of their skin. I would like to think I wouldn’t allow it to change me, but I have never had to struggle to just survive. There was some silver lining of clouds, after the decline of education from universities after some time they were able to rebuild bigger and better institutions to continue and further education.

To conclude the book of essays from David Herlihy describe the world of the plague, from demographics, economics, relations between people and religion, and some theories of how it occurred. I personally found the book exhausting, it makes you question the things you hear today about the infamous plague in relation to what his findings are. All things considered it is a great reference for someone looking to learn about the plague.

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The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. (2019, Jul 03). Retrieved December 10, 2022 , from

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