n the bonus section of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time author John Kelly discusses three people who brought the period of Europe’s Black Death to life for him. The first is Jacme De Podio, a peasant from Marseille. After Jacme’s son, grand-daughter and daughter-in-law all died from the plague, he decided he should inherit his daughter-in-law’s estate. To do so he had to find two witnesses who would swear out in court that she had died. Jacme spent two years searching the plague ravished city of Marseille, finally found the witnesses he needed and inherited the estate. Carpe Diem.
The second was Queen Joanna of Naples and Sicily. One of the major celebrities of 14th century Europe, Queen Joanna stood accused of murdering her husband so she could marry her lover. Her trial in the Papal court at Avignon was the must see event of the day, drawing a crowd from every corner of the continent in spite of the plague that ravaged the land. She was found innocent, though later her former in-laws invaded her kingdom forcing her to flee to Provence where she was reuinted with her lover. The third is Agnolo di Tura called Agnolo the Fat. Agnolo, a hard-working man who rose from the lower classes to the upper middle class prior to the plague, wrote one of the better chronicles of the Black Death which sums up the plagues full horror, “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the fat, buried my wife and five children with my own hands.”
The Black Death, called the Great Mortality by those who lived through it, was the greatest tragedy ever to befall Europe. (Whether or not its death toll was worse than that of World War II depends in part on how you manipulate the statistics.) While it brought about an end to the lives of millions, the Black Death changed the course of European history and laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.
Mr. Kelly’s book is a thorough and entertaining account of the Black Death from its origins to its after effects. While he presents the historical facts and the scientific details along with the numbers needed to understand the profound effects the Black Death had, Mr. Kelly’s focus on the individual people of the time brings the story home as it brings the story to life. The story of the Black Death is full of scoundrels, heroes and everyone in between. Agnolo di Tura will be familiar to anyone who remembers what they studied in middle school, but others, like Queen Joanna of Naples have been kept out of the history books for one reason or another. Hers is one of many fascinating stories in The Great Mortality.
The Great Mortality is a history book for both lovers and non-lovers of history. While there is enough detail in The Great Mortality to answer all but the most obscure questions anyone might have about the Black Death, the book never becomes lost in arcane information or bogged down in academic language. The story of The Great Mortality is always interesting, often moving, and at times inspiring. That all of Agnolo di Tura’s children died moves the reader, but so does the knowledge that he carried on in spite of this. In fact, he remarried and became successful enough to complain about his worker’s demands for higher wages.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.