Top Ten Books on the Bubonic Plague

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When people think about the bubonic plague they tend to focus on the unprecedented devastation it caused at the end of the middle ages in Europe when one in three people were killed. Not surprisingly, the history of the bubonic plague itself is much longer. These books describe the impact of the plague from the Roman Empire to the outbreak of the plague in 1900 in Hawaii and San Francisco. These books tell remarkable stories but they should also serve as a reminder at how precarious life on earth is for humankind.

William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire (Penguin 2008)

During the golden age of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian reigned over a territory that stretched from Italy to North Africa. It was the zenith of his achievements and the last of them. In 542 AD, the bubonic plague struck. In weeks, the glorious classical world of Justinian had been plunged into the medieval and modern Europe was born.

At its height, five thousand people died every day in Constantinople. Cities were completely depopulated. It was the first pandemic the world had ever known and it left its indelible mark: when the plague finally ended, more than 25 million people were dead. Weaving together history, microbiology, ecology, jurisprudence, theology, and epidemiology, Justinian’s Flea is a unique and sweeping account of the little known event that changed the course of a continent.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (Norton, 2014)

The Decameron is the work of fiction on this list. Set against the background of the Black Death of 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio’s undisputed masterpiece recaptures both the tragedies and comedies of medieval life and is surely one of the greatest achievements in the history of literature. The Decameron is one of the most influential and important works of fiction history. The Decameron focuses on 10 people hiding out in the countryside outside of Florence to avoid an outbreak of the plague in Florence. Over the course of ten days, the 7 women and 3 men tell a hundred stories about people living their lives while the storytellers face the constant threat of death.

There are numerous versions of The Decameron available on Amazon. The Norton Critical Edition stands out because it includes essays from experts and additional information that is incredibly useful for the reader.

Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco (Penguin, 2004)

The veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter Marilyn Chase’s fascinating account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in late Victorian San Francisco is a real-life thriller that resonates in today’s headlines. The Barbary Plague transports us to the Gold Rush boomtown in 1900, at the end of the city’s Gilded Age. With a deep understanding of the effects on public health of politics, race, and geography, Chase shows how one city triumphed over perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges.

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown (Oxford, 2004)

A little over a century ago, bubonic plague--the same Black Death that decimated medieval Europe--arrived on the shores of Hawaii just as the islands were about to become a U.S. territory. In this absorbing narrative, James Mohr tells the story of that fearful visitation and its fiery climax--a vast conflagration that engulfed Honolulu's Chinatown.

Mohr tells this gripping tale largely through the eyes of the people caught up in the disaster, from members of the white elite to Chinese doctors, Japanese businessmen, and Hawaiian reporters. At the heart of the narrative are three American physicians--the Honolulu Board of Health--who became virtual dictators when the government granted them absolute control over the armed forces and the treasury.

John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (Harper, 2005)

A compelling and harrowing history of the Black Death epidemic that swept through Europe in the mid–14th century killing 25 million people. It was one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in history. "The bodies were sparsely covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured them. And believing it to be the end of the world, no one wept for the dead, for all expected to die." Agnolo di Turo, Siena, 1348

In just over 1000 days from 1347 to 1351 the 'Black Death' swept across medieval Europe killing 30% of it's population. It was a catastrophe that touched the lives of every individual on the continent. The deadly Y. Pestis virus entered Europe by Genoese galley at Messina, Sicily in October 1347. By the spring of 1348 it was devastating the cities of central Italy, by June 1348 it had swept into France and Spain, and by August it had reached England. One graphic testimony can be found at St Mary's, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, where an anonymous hand carved a harrowing inscription for 1349: 'Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.'

Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Harper Perennial Classics, 2009)

A series of natural disasters in the Orient during the fourteenth century brought about the most devastating period of death and destruction in European history. The epidemic killed one-third of Europe's people over a period of three years, and the resulting social and economic upheaval was on a scale unparalleled in all of recorded history. Synthesizing the records of contemporary chroniclers and the work of later historians, Philip Ziegler offers a critically acclaimed overview of this crucial epoch in a single masterly volume. The Black Death vividly and comprehensively brings to light the full horror of this uniquely catastrophic event that hastened the disintegration of an age.


Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (Free Press, 1985)

A fascinating work of detective history, The Black Death traces the causes and far-reaching consequences of this infamous outbreak of plague that spread across the continent of Europe from 1347 to 1351. Drawing on sources as diverse as monastic manuscripts and dendrochronological studies (which measure growth rings in trees), historian Robert S. Gottfried demonstrates how a bacillus transmitted by rat fleas brought on an ecological reign of terror—killing one European in three, wiping out entire villages and towns, and rocking the foundation of medieval society and civilization.

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the end of the Renaissance

Cultures of Plague opens a new chapter in the history of medicine. Neither the plague nor the ideas it stimulated were static, fixed in a timeless Galenic vacuum over five centuries, as historians and scientists commonly assume. As plague evolved in its pathology, modes of transmission, and the social characteristics of its victims, so too did medical thinking about plague develop.

This study of plague imprints, from academic medical treatises to plague poetry, highlights the most feared and devastating epidemic of the sixteenth-century, one that threatened Italy top to toe from 1575 to 1578 and unleashed an avalanche of plague writing. From erudite definitions, remote causes, cures, and recipes, physicians now directed their plague writings to the prince and discovered their most 'valiant remedies' in public health: strict segregation of the healthy and ill, cleaning streets and latrines, addressing the long-term causes of plague-poverty. Those outside the medical profession joined the chorus.

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