We live in an age of emerging infectious diseases, potential pandemics and the devastation of AIDS. From this perspective, Kelly unravels the Black Death of the fourteenth century, an impressive enemy with no respect for borders. The plague spreads “along the China Sea to the coast of Portugal” and across the European continent, where a third to sixty percent of populations are afflicted, and “millions of people across Eurasia [begin] to contemplate the end of civilization… perhaps the end of the human race.”
In a century of limited movement, the Black Death circumnavigates Europe in less than four years, an astonishing rate given the methods of travel, sewing a swath of fear and superstition that gives way to unfettered brutality, from anti-Semitism to self-flagellation to appease an angry God. In sharp contrast, great compassion is shown by those who remain to care for the dying, the extremes of human behavior laid bare in this impending Apocalypse.
The Black Death rings like a curse through cities and villages, desperate people at a loss for defense against such rapaciousness. Central Asia and Medieval Europe, circa 1348-49, is a nightmare. Decaying corpses are piled in heaps on deserted streets, orphaned children left to wither in the elements with no one to care for them, whole families decimated by a pestilence that is unstoppable, taking the lives of noble and peasant alike.
Medieval times had no modern scientific methods for combating pestilence; superstition and fear grow powerful in the face of terror. In a real-time setting, the author paints a portrait of cities, towns and villages victimized by a stalking death, where an imperfect science does little to control the raging disease, where bigotry and personal agendas offer irresistible opportunities for vengeance in the guise of sickness, where ignorance breeds its own contagion, inflaming an already panicked public.
Whether the plague is the result of a cyclical resurgence of bubonic plague or an outbreak of more modern monsters like anthrax or Ebola, The Black Death remains an area of intense interest. Through Kelly’s informed writing and thorough research, the pages of history assume immediacy, reaching beyond statistics to reveal the personalities and eccentricities of those who blindly resist their unwelcome guest.
As city after city rallies, determined to persist only to fall, it is this odd chorus of voices, whether in Italy, Paris or Germany, that assign the human face to this sad progress. Scoured for its most intimate secrets, this vast museum yields the lessons of the past, as Kelly evokes a time and place touched by fate, mining the all too flawed responses for a key to the future.