Book Review: The Great Mortality (2005)

Unfortunately, many readers tend to view books about history as a sleep-inducing recitation of dry events and dates. John Kelly’s The Great Mortality is one of those works that proves there are some wonderful history books out there.

The Great Mortality is subtitled “An Intimate History of the Black Death.” Intimate accurately describes how Kelly weaves the story. He writes in such a way that the Black Death takes on its own malevolent personality. Kelly follows this devastating march of death into and through Europe from roughly 1347 to 1352, never hesitating to take us into the day to day lives of the cities and people affected.

There are other good histories of the Black Death out there. Works by Norman Cantor and Philip Ziegler come to mind. Kelly’s book, though, ranks near the top. As the subtitle implies, it is more personal than the earlier works in both pace and perspective, moving beyond the numbers, horrific as they are, to real people and their lives. This is history as it should be written.

In plague, fear acts as a solvent on human relationships; it makes everyone an enemy and everyone an isolate. In plague, every man becomes an island — a small, haunted island of suspicion, fear, and despair.

John Kelly, The Great Mortality

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