Saturday, November 19, 2022

Review of "The Black Death and the Transformation of the West," by David Herlihy

 Review of

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, by David Herlihy ISBN 0674076133

Five out of five stars

A quick look at a transformative event

 There is no question that the century-long rampage of the epidemic that is called the Black Death changed Europe forever. Entire villages were wiped out and an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the total population died. Massive areas of land were left untilled, and herds of domestic animals wandered free. There is still some debate as to the actual disease, some epidemiologists have questioned whether the disease was solely carried by fleas that fed on rats.

 Herlihy raises that issue and also points out that at the time when the plague hit, Europe was suffering from a food shortage. The tillage methods used at the time had led to soil exhaustion, with declining productivity and there was little additional land available for food production. Herlihy also uses naming records to argue that there was not an outbreak of deep religiosity, for the percentage of children being given biblical first names remained quite low.

 With a shortage of workers, there was a dramatic drop in economic productivity, and since it took approximately 200 years for the size of the European population to reach pre-epidemic levels, there was pressure to invent new labor saving machinery. Herlihy argues as most historians do that the shortage of labor led to extensive advances in technology. With the remaining humans having greater power over their work, there were also significant changes in the social and political order.

 As it generally does, humanity recovered from the mass death due to illness, when it did so many positive forces were set in motion. Many of those changes are explained in this book.

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