The Black Death by Philip Ziegler

The Black DeathOpening Sentence:It must have been at some time during 1346 that word first reached Europe of strange and tragic happenings far away in the East.
Synopsis:A series of natural disasters in the Orient during the fourteenth century caused the most devastating period of death and destruction in European history. One third of the people in Europe were killed over a period of just three years, and there were social and economic upheaval on an unparalleled scale.

Philip Ziegler‘s acclaimed overview of this crucial event synthesises the records of contemporary chroniclers and the work of later historians in a masterly volume. His accessible and readable style is complemented with colour and black and white illustrations to present the full horror and destruction wreaked by this disease and its contribution to the disintegration of an age.
Comments:It would be difficult to find a more thorough plague history than The Black Plague by Philip Ziegler. Drawing on both contemporary data and modern studies he creates a compelling picture of the outbreak, spread and long-term effects of the ‘Black Plague’, a pandemic of (it is currently believed) a combination of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague which tore through the world in the fourteenth century.

Nearly everyone has heard of ‘The Black Death‘ and knows that around a third of Europe was wiped out. But how many of us have thought about the social effects of such a high death toll? The plague had horrific short-term effect, it is true. I cannot begin to imagine the terror of watching your friends and neighbours dropping, not one by one, but in twos and threes, from this mysterious new disease, knowing that it could be you or your child or parent who is next. It is understandable, and obvious that there would be some disruption of services, unable to cope with demand or labour shortages.

However, the plagues of the fourteenth century also had more long reaching effects. The fear of death, and the frailty of life, led to a relaxation of social mores. The shortage of labour gave workers more power, contributing to the collapse of the feudal system, and a fairer working wage. From this time, the reverence for and influence of the church began to decline. It is argued that the effects of the plague may even have had a direct bearing on the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

My only quibble with this book is the author’s annoying habit of using French phrases without providing translations. We are not all bi-lingual, and when the author tells us that ‘Froissart wrote appreciatively of “le pays gras et plentureux de toutes choses…le maisons pleines de toutes richessus…”‘, we are left unable to understand the reference or why he has chosen to include this quote in the text. Even worse is when he uses phrases himself as part of the text, as in this example, in reference to Edward III: ‘He managed to combine the charismatic appeal of a beau chavalier sans peur et sans reproche with the ruthlessness and lack of scruple which every medieval monarch needed if he were to enjoy a reasonable tenure of his throne.’ Such instances distract from the flow of the text as those of us who don’t speak French try to fathom what it means and if it is important to know. Perhaps future editions could include translations for us lay people?

Aside from that, though, this was a comprehensive and easy to follow study and I would recommend it to students of medieval history or those who are simply interested in this troubled period.

Categories: Impressions

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2 replies


  1. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year by A. Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C. Moote « Rafferty's Rules
  2. Books I Read in May 2009 « Rafferty's Rules

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