The Black Death

by Philip Ziegler

Paperback, 2003



Call number




Sutton Publishing (2003), Paperback


It came out of Central Asia, killing one-third of the European population. And among the survivors, a new skepticism arose about life and God and human authority. Here, in this essay by British historian Philip Ziegler, is the story of the plague that ravaged Europe.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lokidragon
This book by Philip Ziegler is an effort to assess the full scope and magnitude of the effects of the Black Death in Western Europe. Starting in 1346 Ziegler rides the wave of the Black death as it is first rumored in the East, to its arrival in England in 1348. It is based on an extensive
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collection of primary, some of which are archival, and secondary sources such as municipal, ecclesiastical, and manorial records, and this source base is supplemented by a large body of published studies deploying similar material. The result is a well-documented description that provides a general overview of Western Europe, but focuses mainly on England. In addition the book is laced with intelligent commentary on both the evidence and the weight it can bear, as well as a few ending chapters with two imaginary villages and how the Black Death would have played out in a model medieval village that was poor and on a subsistence level of survival and one of modest income that was self-sustaining.
From the beginning chapter Ziegler lays out the popular and most contemporary view about the origins of the Black Death and follows its natural course of spread by overland and coastal trade routes. Ziegler traces is origins, the nature of the disease, and the medical knowledge of the day before he starts his brief overview of Italy, France, and Germany. Not much is said about the rest of Continental Europe before he plunges into England which is broken down region by region. We are then treated to Ziegler's explanation of the impact of the Black Death by using an imaginary model of a medieval village, as well as a few chapters on the consequences the Black Death had on the lives and psyche of the survivors.
The books full potential is not realized, however, because not much time is spent on the overall condition of Western Europe, and too many generalization and assumptions are made connecting English villages with villages of other counties. The books main focus is on England, and not much else. Of the seventeen chapters only six deal with life outside of England. I found the title a bit misleading, and the chapters with the imaginary village a bit assuming and too fictitious. However well taken his cautions, this technique nevertheless leaves the reader uncertain about what, if anything, is to be learned from just the English perspective. Is this book about the Black Death or just the Black Death in England?
This is not to deny the book's usefulness, for it is replete with valuable information and a very organized bibliography section. The chapters are thoughtful, well planned, and organized. Though he doesn't spend too much time on other countries apart from England, Ziegler does point out one main difference and challenge that each country dealt with, and this can give you some very useful ideas about what questions need to be asked about the effects on each country and why each reacted differently. Ziegler's Anglo-bias shows up on pages 132-134 but these can be easily overlooked. What this book lacks in depth it makes up for in rich bibliographic information, and this particular copy has a post-script added by the author as he tackles criticism level at him by academia.
In the end, however, we are given an intellectual journey into medieval life in England during the fourteenth-century. This book is great for the non-historian, but as a student of history one can only gauge this books worth as a portal or jumping-off point to deeper and more thought provoking books. The real gem of this book is found in its chapter notes and bibliography. I found the organization of Ziegler's notes and bibliographic information to be or par with a closer look at the Black Death and fourteenth-century Europe. Ziegler freely admits that he is not a medieval historian, but argues that his imaginary village is not without merit, and I tend to agree that this approach although not historically valid does offer a historical perspective if you like to think outside of the box. So if you are a non-historian and want to learn a general overview of the Black Death, I would recommend this book, however, if you are a serious historian, I would glance at the chapter notes and bibliographic information, but would not recommend this to the serious student or historian of medieval studies.
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LibraryThing member RandyStafford
My reaction to reading this book in 1993.

This is generally thought to be one of the best general histories of the 1347 plague epidemic, and I enjoyed it. It didn’t have as much medical and scientific detail as Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death nor did it have as many non-European accounts and
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histories as the latter, but it did have many commendable features. Ziegler, understandably given that he’s English and writing for an English audience and the much better official documentation that exists for the event in that country, concentrates for most of the book on the plague in England.

Ziegler likes to quote the statistical conclusions of other historians as to mortality rates and population, but he also does a good job illustrating that these conclusions are pretensions to exactitude. We simply can’t say precisely how many people there were in a given area or how many died from the plague. The extrapolations of mortality rates drawn from records of clerical vacancies are a case in point. The vacancy may exist from death due to other causes, flight, or promotion as well as a clergyman dying from the plague. And the ratio of people to clergyman is not known anyway.

Ziegler has a nice chapter where he creates two fictional villages (the details from actual history) and shows the horrible economic, social, and religious effects the plague wrought. He does a particularly good job showing how people psychologically reacted. The plague was, most significantly (and strangely given our own perspective in an age of science) death from mysterious causes. No statements of medical science and bacteriology blunted the terror. At first, in the village, it seems a distant horror (in the fourteenth century, most of the world outside the village is distant in the mental map of people) then it slowly creeps from the Continent to England to one’s own home.

Certain historians have made what seems to be a telling comparision between the similarities of Post WWI Europe and Europe after the plague: economic dislocations, a questioning of religious values, excesses of sex, consumption, and drugs. But the horror of WWI was constrained to the front lines, was a knowable, definite enemy, and the chances of even a front-line soldier dying in WWI were less than a peasant dying – wherever he was – in England. Ziegler talks about the post-plague pilgrimages and debaucheries as both being signs of frenzied gratitude, collective sights of gratitude and relief as surviving. He tells of the sudden preoccupation with grisly death in art, the rise of the cult of St. Sebastian (the arrows that pierce him are also linked the arrows symbolizing pestilience in various paintings of the time), the decline in prestige of the village parson (who was often, at best, seen to be only reluctantly and timorously helping the sick) and the increased prestige of the friar – many who wandered about helping the sick.

Ziegler also addresses the contention that the plague accelerated the commutation of feudal labor services. Ziegler’s conclusion is that this is probably generally true – with a lot of exceptions. In some manors, commutation was in full gear already; in others, commutation was a temporary step before re-instituting labor obligations; in still others, there was a conservative, post plague backlash and commutation became less practiced. Ziegler points out the same variety of circumstances in the question as to how manor lords fared economically. Many experienced temporary gains (from death taxes – however much of this was in the form of livestock that had to be fed and whose price dropped in a flooded market) and then loses due to inflation, higher labor costs, and the higher cost of manufactured goods (many artisans being dead). He documents how some villages really did disappear – not necessarily because the plague killed everywhere but because the inhabitants illegally fled to richer places to better their lot in life (manor lords turning a blind eye to such infractions in order to get labor for their estates). Ziegler also talks about how stating the Black Death led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 may be a bit much. Ziegler, in short, does a nice job talking about the Plague’s effects in all their variety without making sweeping generalizations.
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LibraryThing member carrieprice78
This book is very engaging and does not pretend to be anything it is not. Simply put, it's a conglomeration of research about the topic with a little conjecture by the author.
LibraryThing member Chris_El
Originally published in 1969 this book was one of the first, and only, books to cover the middle ages black death plague in an overview fashion. Most things prior to this point were written by scholars for scholars and usually dealt with very narrow subjects. This work is pretty readable. It mainly
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covers the little we know about the origins of the plague in Asia and how it moved into Europe. The author does capture some of the human side of what it must like to watch your community be shattered by a plague as he talks about how different nations/communities tried to deal with the plague from a medical, spiritual, and political standpoint. Mostly they died.

The author does a chapter on the common village and how he imagines it would have happened to give you an idea of how many people perished in proportion to survived and how that effected society when you live in such a co-dependent small town.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
I like how Philip Ziegler's classic story of the Black Death chapter by chapter advances towards England (chapters 1-6) and then tell how the plague affected England itself (chapters 7-13) and finally wraps it up in thematic chapters discussing the lives lost, the social and economic consequences
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as well as its effect on art and religion. A truly medieval event that was crucial in kick-starting the modern world. While Karl Marx and others stated that theft was at the beginning of capital accumulation, the black death allowed redistribution from the dead to the living in a lethal but not violent way. It is rather surprising that it had not caused more violence, chaos and destruction. Ziegler is amazing in highlighting the continuity of public record-keeping and city life in a tumultuous time. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
I’m reading these Black Death books in the order I find them at used book stores, which is unfortunately not their order of publication. I should have read Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death first, since it was published before all the others I’ve been reading. Ziegler describes himself in the
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Introduction as an amateur medievalist, and admits doing no original work but just synthesizing numerous papers and dissertations published since the last major book on the plague in the 1930s. As such, he’s done a good job, but you would be better off reading the more recent book with the same title by Robert Gottfried.

However, there were a few things in Ziegler’s book that struck me. One was that other authors insist that the term “Black Death” was not used until the 17th century; however, Ziegler quotes a contemporary Welsh poem using both “Black Death” and “Black Plague”. Perhaps these were added in translation?

The second was a comment about a water mill in England that had become “valueless” in contemporary documents because the miller and all the client peasants had died. Most historians would cite this as evidence for the death rate or the change in country farming practices brought on by the plague; Ziegler does that to, but also adds that this is an example of the unimaginable personal tragedies of the Black Death. It’s hard to relate to people that died 650 years ago; their names are unknown and their very bones are now vanished to dust. But I did get a little kick in the conscience when forced to think of plague victims as actual people rather than statistics.

Last, Ziegler is in agreement with most other authors on the death rate (somewhere between 30-40%). I’d read this in a number of other works (Ole Bendictow has a much higher death rate but most others cluster around a third of the population), but I happened to think of something else I’d read this time: the mortality rate for untreated bubonic plague is around 40-50%. That implies that if the consensus estimate of medieval plague mortality is correct, almost everybody got it. (Not quite, of course, because there were some cases of the more lethal pneumonic and septicemic forms, and because “untreated” for a peasant in medieval England is quite a bit different from “untreated” for a rancher in rural Colorado). I’d like to see how much documentation there is for people who got the plague and recovered.

Again, worthwhile if you happen to find it cheap somewhere but for an introduction you better off with the more recent Gottfried.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. - Jeuan Gethin

Philip Ziegler penned a spectacular survey of the 14th century disaster which could've flipped the human lights off permanently. Okay, maybe not extinguish, but certainly a long-lasting dimming was a possibility. This is a splendid
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book, one which steadily recognizes the limitations of history. Ziegler also prodded me again to finally read Bocaccio.

What did happen during that terrible pestilence of 1348 and 1349? Well, likely 40 percent (or more) of Europe died. People blamed Jehova, eathquakes (releasing the miasma) and with lethal certainty, the Jews. Feudalism continued its shuffle off-stage, conditions may have improved for peasants. The church saw its foundations wobble. Fanaticism also spiked. Those who concretely link the Plague with Peasants Rebellions and the Reformation are taking shortcuts, which is understandable. Ziegler's work is one of conjecture and doubt. There is simply so little which can be verified. I suppose the wisdom of the Black Death is that Shit Happens.
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Original publication date


Physical description

282 p.; 9.53 inches


0750932023 / 9780750932028
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