Review of Stora döden – Den värsta katastrof som drabbat Europa (2000)


Dick Harrison (writer).

Read in 2020.

The 1347–1350 European epidemic of the bubonic plague.

Read during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, while working from home and taking care of my girlfriend who’d caught the virus early. Like A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), Stora döden is popular history, but Stora döden is not narrative history. It’s a bit closer to an academic overview. Harrison alternates describing the spatiotemporal development of the epidemic—which is quite dry—with richer stuff: Contemporary reactions in the form of purported explanations, cures and cultural change, especially as it is visible in art. Anti-Jewish pogroms and flagellants get almost whole chapters.

For context to these reactions, Harrison gives only brief overviews of the economy, political structure, religions, science, pseudoscience and popular culture, but there are no characters other than a few chroniclers and kings, and then only in brief passages. Quotes from primary sources are mostly brief as well. Descriptions of method and historiographical debates take up more space, which is gratifying, but makes for a rather thin experience. I heard Harrison lecture on the subject in the mid-2000s, with a vigour absent here. The horror of the plague comes across, but in glimpses; the historian is careful to point out that writers of the period would often exaggerate the effects for drama’s sake. Being a serious work of history, the book is ultimately prosaic, though it opens with a colourful anecdote from the author’s life.

Harrison mentions a number of later works influenced by the plague, like The Decameron (1393), Chaucer, “A Gest of Robyn Hode” (ca. 1450), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) and, apropos of our contempt for rats, “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) and Mickey Mouse as a creature more sympathetic than a rat. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) would have made a good specific example of Disney putting rats at the very bottom of anthropomorphic moral hierarchies; not just evil but self-consciously denying that they’re rats at all. In one of his many interesting speculations on the long-term consequences of the epidemic, Harrison also mentions the real Danish noble houses of Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstierne as winners. Though Harrison doesn’t point it out, these are of course the namesakes of the duo so often cut out of stage performances of Hamlet (1603), the seed for which is otherwise 13th-century.

The author’s case for the plague as a significant disaster above and beyond an earlier “agrarian crisis” is compelling, and the case of Britain is especially tragic. Lots of actual hamlets wiped out, food got cheap and labour expensive, hence rich landowners bought up more land and left it to sheep, thus continuing to wreck the local ecology and feeding into the national wool industry, which would eventually lead to Great Britain’s curious edge in 17th-century textile industrialization, hence world hegemony. It’s tempting to think that the total and consistent failure of clerical authorities to protect people helped spring the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but Harrison doesn’t go very near that line of thinking.

The most absorbing part of the book is how the author details a variety of ostensible explanatory frameworks—astrological, miasmatic, moral, theological, humorological, geological, magical, dietary, prophetic, conspiratorial etc.—that are all incorrect. The people of the 14th century weren’t stupid and eventually recycled their experience with isolating lepers into functional quarantine procedures, but it is clear how terrifying that first epidemic must have been when it came without warning and the proposed explanations for it were all contradicted by the facts. There were some who hypothesized that the plague was a physical, contagious thing and one doctor is seen advising against the immediate reuse of hospital bed linens, but nobody understood even a portion of the real causal chain. It had too many links: Bacterium to flea to rat to human, producing a variety of symptoms depending on the precise course of events.

Discussing the problem of theodicy, Harrison examines the explanation of Bishop Thomas Brinton: Adult victims of the plague died because they had sinned against Yahweh and innocent children died because they would eventually have sinned if they had lived. Similarly, Muslim clerics proposed that non-Muslims victims were being punished while Muslim victims were instead being martyred by the same disease. In both of these Abrahamic religions, it was all for the best. No wonder ordinary people paid little attention to such authorities.

The most haunting part of the book is the wealth of context it provides for Swedish folktales, which the author discusses in some detail. There’s a brief section on the plague in Svenska folksägner (1972/1977). Stora döden is an anvil for them: Harrison believes that the stories of child sacrifice in contemporary Europe are true.

References here: Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE), Three Suns (2004).

text non-fiction