Edward Tenner

By David Herlihy. Edited by Samuel K.Cohn, Jr. 128 pp. Harvard Univ. Press. $27 hardcover, $12 paper

Read Time:
2m 58sec


By David Herlihy. Edited by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. 128 pp. Harvard Univ. Press. $27 hardcover, $12 paper

As a teacher, the Brown University historian David Herlihy was a model medievalist, an unassuming man adept at unraveling technical details of demography and society, and equally able to provoke students with the big questions. His last and posthumous work (he died in 1991), though brief, is a splendid memorial.

We are approaching the 650th anniversary of Europe’s worst natural disaster, the bubonic plague of 1348. The cataclysmic "Black Death"—a term coined in the 16th century and popularized in the 19th— reduced the continent’s population by as much as two-thirds, leaving behind an indelible record in contemporary chronicles, art, and (in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron) literature. With the discovery of the bacillus Yersinia pestis a century ago, the biological roots of the epidemic became clear. The social factors behind the plague, however, remain controversial.

Herlihy addresses today’s most widely accepted social explanations for the epidemic, the Malthusian and the Marxist. Did the Black Death result from overpopulation, declining living standards, and malnutrition, as the former theory suggests? The author thinks not, because European population had been high for decades without a major epidemic and because the population continued to fall for decades after the plague. Malnutrition may even have afforded some protection against disease; bacteria, like their human hosts, need nutrients to survive. Was the true cause, as the Marxist explanation holds, heightened exploitation of the peasantry by lords who, when the real value of their rents declined, turned to war and pillage? No, because nonfeudal regions such as Tuscany suffered similarly. Herlihy argues that the Europe of 1348 was stagnant but not in crisis. Its population density, though high with respect to available technology and resources, was sustainable when the plague struck. Whatever other social and economic patterns may have promoted the plague, the author discounts deprivation as a cause.

While the mass death was not a consequence of social decline, Herlihy contends, it did prove to be a terrible but effective catalyst for social renewal. It broke demographic, economic, and technological deadlocks by depleting the work force and raising labor costs. Landlords had to offer tenants forms of capital such as oxen and seed. Artisans had to extend guild apprenticeships beyond the family circle. Craftsman-entrepreneurs such as Johannes Gutenberg found ways to substitute technology for manpower. With soldiers and sailors as with scribes, the labor shortage stimulated innovation: introduction of firearms and larger ships.

Disease changed European culture, too. In higher education, the plague dealt a terrible blow to Oxford, whose student population declined from 30,000 to 6,000; in all, five of Europe’s 30 universities had to close. Yet pious bequests and the need for new clergy led to new colleges at Oxford and Cambridge as well as innovative new universities in Prague and Florence. In science, the obviously contagious nature of the plague challenged Galenic medicine to modify a model of disease that recognized only imbalances of humors. The plague also left its mark on religion. The search for divine protection led to a new vigor in devotion to the saints (and to newly popular saints—in Florence, parents began to name their sons Sebastian, Bartholomew, and Christopher), which sharpened the already growing controversy over their role in Christianity. In some respects, then, mass mortality and depopulation may be healthy for technology, learning, faith, and other living forces: a cheerful reflection for the new millennium.

—Edward Tenner


More From This Issue