Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

The Complete History of the Black Death

The Complete History of the Black Death, written by Ole J. Benedictow, published by Boydell Press (an imprint of Boydell & Brewer) in March 2021 (hardback, 1058 pages)

Before proceeding, a caveat emptor: the title is a bit of a red herring. Though Benedictow writes it reflects his ambition for the book to be the complete presentation of data on the spread of, and mortality caused by, the Black Death, there are many topics he only touches on in passing. If you were hoping for a well-rounded introduction that also includes, say, the economic, cultural, and religious impacts, or the interactions between disease, climatic changes, and wars, then you will have to supplement your reading. What you do get is an exhaustive analysis of a wide range of medieval source material to painstakingly reconstruct (1) a chronology of how the Black Death spread around Europe, and (2) an estimate of how many people it killed. This is backed up with a healthy dollop of epidemiological and microbiological details on the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis and the vectors of its spread, black rats and their fleas.

As used here, “Black Death” refers to the first wave of the second plague pandemic (1346–c. 1690). Brief introductions to the first (541–767) and third plague pandemics (1894–c. 1940) are also given, as Benedictow makes the case that all three were caused by strains of Y. pestis. The third pandemic furthermore matters as it led to major bacteriological insights that helped us understand the second. The first nine chapters explain the transmission pathway, medical and clinical features, and epidemiology of bubonic plague. There has been a strong revisionist current in previous decades arguing against Y. pestis and rats with their fleas being the cause of the Black Death. Various explanations have instead included viruses, anthrax, or primary pneumonic plague. Recent technological developments, still in their infancy when the first edition was written, allow the analysis of ancient DNA (see Ancient DNA, i.e. DNA recovered from long-dead human remains). These have convincingly shown the presence of Y. pestis in putative plague victims and put to bed alternative theories. Benedictow thoroughly disarmed such explanations in his 800-page book What Disease Was Plague? and here reiterates why rats and fleas most certainly were the plague vectors. The microbiological and epidemiological details are very interesting and help explain the observed timing and pattern of the plague’s spread.

“[The goal of this book] is an exhaustive analysis of a wide range of medieval source material to painstakingly reconstruct (1) a chronology of how the Black Death spread around Europe, and (2) an estimate of how many people it killed.”

The first goal of this book is the painstaking analysis of the spread of the Black Death, greatly expanding on the first edition. The internet has unlocked a treasure trove of source material not previously accessible, and this part of the book has now ballooned from 168 to 482 pages (which is more than the entire length of the first edition; I happen to have a copy of it). Starting with its appearance in 1346 in what was then the lands of the Mongol Khanate of the Golden Horde (parts of today’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia), the plague moved in a clockwise fashion around Europe over seven years, starting in the Mediterranean and burning its way through Western and Northern Europe before arriving back in Russia in 1353. Those are the broad brushstrokes. Benedictow fills in a mind-boggling amount of detail, showing how the plague could hopscotch long distances by land and sea to e.g. reach southern England already in 1348. He convincingly shows, as has been argued elsewhere, that trade routes shaped the spread of the plague, which helps explain the sometimes unexpected patterns once you dig into the details. One remarkable example is how the Khanate forbidding trade with Christians in Russia resulted in a hard barrier that meant the Black Death had to take the long way around. As an interesting aside, David Quammen’s tagline for Spillover was “everything comes from somewhere” and recent scholarship, not touched on here, is charting the history of the Black Death in Asia before it reached Europe.

The second goal of this book is to estimate the mortality caused by the Black Death. This is probably what Benedictow is most famous for within academic circles. Whereas historians have traditionally estimated that a third of the European population died, Benedictow came to a far higher estimate of some 60% in the first edition. For this edition, he has expanded the number of datasets examined from 194 to close to 300, expanded this section from 140 to 239 pages, and increased his mortality estimate to 65%. This is staggeringly high, but it starts making sense once you consider that the epidemiological process primarily plays out in fleas and their rodent hosts. We are not required for the bacterium’s reproduction and are mere collateral damage. Whereas for the spread of the Black Death information is available for nearly every country (though some of it scant and fragmentary), mortality data is unfortunately far thinner on the ground, England being the notable exception. Since direct demographic records such as national censuses were hardly ever made during the Middle Ages, Benedictow primarily draws on medieval tax records of various kinds, carefully explaining the various assumptions he makes when parsing such data. Who did tax records actually record? Male householders. What was the size of households and how did it decrease because of the Black Death, i.e. what was the likely but unrecorded mortality of women and children? How were mortality figures skewed by people quickly taking over vacated tenancies on a manor? etc.

“[…] throughout the book, Benedictow stresses the need for the medievalist’s craft. In short, you cannot take the claims made in historical documents at face value.”

Indeed, throughout the book, Benedictow stresses the need for the medievalist’s craft. In short, you cannot take the claims made in historical documents at face value. People at the time obviously had no idea what had just hit them, lacked accurate information on the scale of the catastrophe, and did not record information with an eye towards future generations of scholars. Whether it is unpacking rhetorical claims in chronicles or considering the caveats when studying church archives detailing the number of registered wills, Benedictow frequently reiterates the need for careful source criticism. One thing I found missing is a better explanation of the structure of medieval society. Though a glossary is included, it contains mostly epidemiological terms. Benedictow assumes a familiarity with the feudal system of medieval Europe and terms such as tenancies, cottagers, yeomen, castellanies, or tithingmen; as well as the internal structure of Christian churches and terms such as benefices, parish registers, or institutions. He writes for an audience of fellow historians.

This brings me to several points of criticism. Though there is no doubt that this book is a formidable academic achievement, it is not an easy read. Its analysis is, to borrow the words of Ellen Arnold over at H-Net Reviews, both exhaustive and exhausting. First, the writing is somewhat stilted and there are some linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as the repeated use of peculiar phrases (e.g. “backcloth” and “mind-stretching”) and a persistent habit of using two descriptors where one would have done. Examples include “sailing together or in a convoy” (p. 286), “their successors or inheritors” (p. 317), “profound or shattering impression” (p. 756), or “large or big manors” (p. 844).

Second, the writing is repetitive. Now, in the author’s defence, this is to be expected as many people will not read the book cover to cover but pick chapters on their country of interest. However, even within chapters, he will sometimes repeat whole paragraphs verbatim. For instance, his explanation about ship voyages, rest days, and reprovisioning on pp. 286, 288, and 289; or his explanation that remarriage between widows and widowers was tricky and thus previously unmarried persons were preferred on pp. 701, 715, and 727.

Third, he heavily employs military metaphors when describing the spread of the Black Death, writing of conquests, bridgeheads, campaigns, fronts, and invasions. A particularly egregious example: “It was the initial phase of the Black Death’s conquest of Europe, when it secured bridgeheads of vital strategic importance” (p. 179). Their excessive use feels inappropriate and risks improperly describing the actual epidemiological processes on the ground.

“Though there is no doubt that this book is a formidable academic achievement, it is not an easy read. Its analysis is, to borrow the words of Ellen Arnold […], both exhaustive and exhausting.”

Fourth, Benedictow is scathing in his criticism of scholars who have come to other conclusions or disagree with him. To be clear, it is not the criticism itself that I find objectionable, merely the strong wording in which it is delivered. His preface condemns a study he argues is omitting and misinterpreting source material as showing “flagrant breaches of the tenets of historical methodology” (p. xxv). Later, he is infuriated by the claim of a fellow scholar that he would have misread a historical chronicle, writing of “highly offensive personal accusations” (p. 580) that are “groundless and shameless” (p. 583). He even goes so far as to question the editorial standards of the journal: “it does not serve any purpose to submit a rebuttal to a journal where the editors have shown gross disregard for ordinary scholarly standards” (p. 589). On the contrary, criticism and rebuttals in the peer-reviewed literature are the bread and butter of academia and there are always other journals where you can submit your response. Benedictow’s hostility and defensiveness are not becoming a senior scholar and raise red flags, no matter how solid the scholarship is. Unfortunately, seeing that other reviewers have written the same about earlier books, it is clear that he is unlikely to change his style. I would encourage readers to not let it detract from the good work that lies underneath.

In short, this book would have benefited from the attention of an editor to reign in some of the worst writing excesses. Further points of improvement I would suggest would be more maps when discussing the spread of the Black Death. Though the overview map on the endpapers is a stroke of brilliance, only a few chapters include maps and it is easy to get lost in the flurry of unfamiliar place names. Similarly, I question the presentation of the mortality data. One claim he circles back to is that rural mortality was higher than urban mortality, and more generally that there is an inverse correlation between population density and mortality. This sounds counterintuitive but has been observed by others as well. However, Benedictow’s presentation of tabulated averages by itself is far from convincing. There is no indication of the spread of the data around the averages, nor any mention of results of statistical tests.

Despite my criticism, it is crystal clear that The Complete History of the Black Death is a very significant contribution to plague research. For general readers interested in history this book will be a long and hard read, but for historians, especially those working on the history of infectious diseases and epidemics, there is no way around this book. I am particularly impressed with Benedictow’s strenuous efforts at not just revisiting this book 18 years later but so significantly expanding it. If you read the first edition or used it in your research, you will need to upgrade to this second edition.

Early on, Benedictow writes that “the reason the history of the Black Death is important [is that] it made history” (p. 13). Kyle Harper showed this world-shaping force of infectious disease more generally in Plagues Upon the Earth, but to examine this in more detail for the Black Death I will next turn to Belich’s The World the Plague Made.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Complete History of the Black Death (2nd edition)

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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