Booksellers vs. Bestsellers
by Jamie Lutton
– The Capitol Hill Times –
I was conferring with my business partner about whether to change the design of our shop’s Twice Sold Tales t-shirt design. We have had a bubonic plague and Black Death theme for over 25 years now, and we thought about getting a new slogan.
Why bubonic plague t-shirts in the first place? I became interested in history back in 1981 when I read Barbara Tuchman’s book, “A Distant Mirror,” about the 14th century. When you read history in high school, they don’t dwell on the dark stuff.
I have concluded that there were two major catastrophes in Western Europe in the last thousand years. One is the Black Death, which appears to have killed 50 to 60 percent of Europe’s population and kept it from growing much for 400 years. The second was World War I, which killed more than half the mobilized forces, including many of the men between 15 and 50.
It radically changed society. Women moved into the work force during this war in all Western countries, including the United States, and never went home again. Women’s clothing weight was reduced by some 80 percent as hems rose and corsets were discarded. World War I also encouraged a new cynicism about the intelligence of those in charge among not only the intelligentsia, but also the common person.
But the Black Death was inexplicable, something you couldn’t blame on human nature, and which no authority could stop. It overran all of Eurasia. A person could go to bed healthy and not live though the night. Society nearly broke down as people fled the sick and dying, taking the disease with them to the next town. After running over Europe for three years, the disease returned 10 years later and killed another 20 percent of the population.
This happened for the next 400 years, popping up in one country or another, wiping out 5 to 30 percent of the population each time. The population of Europe did not return to the numbers of 1348 until the mid 1740s or so.
The Black Death also helped create the modern world. Because there were a lot fewer people, labor was suddenly expensive, and poor people began to demand better treatment. There was nearly a revolution in the 1370s in England, as the poor rose up in a huge mob, and walked to London to demand better treatment from the king of the time, Richard II.
Unlike the long-lasting and very successful Roman Empire, which depended on a huge slave labor population to keep its elite in power, the elites of the West began to encourage inventions that saved on expensive labor. With a constant labor shortage, there was money to be made in labor saving devices. There was a shortage of cheap labor in the monasteries to copy books, for example, so the frantic search for an alternative gave rise to the printing press 100 years later in Germany.
And with the ruination of the worldview that the Catholic Church was infallible, new heresies were born and grew. People wanted to read the Bible themselves, rather than having priests interpret it for them. By the time Martin Luther, with the new invention the printing press at his back, was able to break with the church, his writings passed from hand to hand in new printed form.
When ships returned in the 1420s with reports to the Emperor of new lands to the West, the Chinese Emperor, successor to the man who had ordered the voyages, had ships that could voyage burned. He wanted to maintain political stability at home. He did not want new ideas in his land.
A few decades later, in 1491, when Columbus said he could get to India by sailing west, the twin rulers of Spain, Fernande and Isabella, encouraged him and gave him money to buy ships, instead of burning his ships and locking him up. The tenor of the time was looking outward. Portugal was exploring Africa, seeking new trade routes. The old institutions had failed by not stopping the disaster that was The Black Death, so people invented new institutions and new ideas.
Careful observers in the 1720s or so noticed that if plague victims were walled up in their houses for 40 days, the disease would not spread further. This was a good 175 years before germ theory finally proved that the fleas on rats were the vectors. And so the Black Death was finally halted, and the disease ebbed and nearly vanished in the West. It also helped that the brown rat displaced the black rat, which carried the disease, and cities awakened to the idea of clean streets and municipal garbage pickups.
After reading “A Distant Mirror,” I began to collect books on the Black Death. Here is a short list of some of my favorite books on the subject:
“The Black Death” (Manchester Medieval Sources Series) by the French scholar Rosemary Horrox.
“The Black Death” by Philip Zeigler, published in 1971.
“The Black Death” by Robert S. Gottfried, published in 2012.
“Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death” by Mavis Mate, published in 1998.
“The Great Mortality” by John Kelly, published in 2006.
My personal favorite is “The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History” by Ole Benedictow. This one is a contrarian book. It claims that the Black Death might actu8ally have been an anthrax outbreak.
For a good novelist account: “The Black Death: A Personal History” by John Hatcher. For the lover of fiction, this is the one great book on the subject. It focuses the impact on a small English town for which we have very good records.
Another great novel is Daniel Defoe’s book “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which is a novelized account of the Black Death epidemic of 1666 in London.
“More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Man” by Robert Hendrickson, published in 1983.
“The Great Famine” by William Chester Jordan about the famine of 1315 to 1322 that arose from a period of global cooling. This famine, from years of no summers and failed crops, killed 10 percent of Europe’s population before the Black Death.