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The Black Death

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 22 May 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how the Black Death influenced the structure and ideas of Medieval Europe. In October 1347, a Genoese trading ship arrived at the busy port of Messina in Sicily and docked among many similar ships doing similar things. But this ship was special because this ship had rats and the rats had fleas and the fleas had plague. This was the Black Death and its terrible progress was captured by the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio who declared “in those years a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat”.

In the long and unsanitary history of Europe there have been many plagues but only one Black Death. It killed over a third of Europe’s population in 4 years – young and old, rich and poor, in the town and in the country. When it stopped in 1351 it left a continent ravaged but transformed – the poor found their labour to be valuable, religion was both reinforced and undercut, medicine progressed, art changed and the continent awash with guilt and memorialisation.

With Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London; Samuel Cohn, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow; Paul Binski, Professor of the History of Medieval Art at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge

  • Further Reading

    Samuel K., Jr. Cohn, Death and Property in Siena 1205-1800: Strategies for the Afterlife (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), ch 5 ‘High Culture’

    Samuel K., Jr. Cohn, The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), xiv+429 pp. (reprinted in paperback, 1997), any chapter (perhaps 4, the structure of piety; or 7 painting)

    Samuel K., Jr. Cohn, The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (London: Edward Arnold, May, 2002 in the UK and Oxford University Press, in the US), xii+318 pp. ISBN 0 340 70646 5 (Hb); ISBN 0 349 70647 3 (Pb), ch. 9 ‘Culture and psychology’

    Samuel K., Jr. Cohn, Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425 (Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, 2006). ISBN 0-674-02162-2; x+376 pp., ch. 10 ‘A new Appetite for Liberty’

    David Herlihy and Samuel K., Jr. Cohn, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1997), x+122 pp.

    Ole J Benedictow, The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge, 2004) 0-85115-943-5

    William Naphy and Andrew Spicer, The Black Death: A History of Plagues 1345-1730 (Stroud, 2001) 0-75242-308-8

    Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Harmondsworth, 1970) 0-14021-189-6

  • .

    Translated Sources in:
    The Black Death, edited and translated by Rosemary Horrox, (Manchester, 1994) 0-71903-497-3 and paperback edition 0-71903-498-1

    P. Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. H. Weaver, (New York, 1981)
    Standard reference point for theories of death culture and individuality

    J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924) (Harmondsworth, 1976)

    J. R. Banker, Death in the Community: Memorialization and Confraternities in an Italian Commune in the Late Middle Ages (Athens, Georgia, 1989)

    M. Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton, 1951)

    H. W. Van Os, "The Black Death and Sienese Painting: a problem of interpretation", Art History 4/3 (1981), pp. 237-49.

    P. Binski, Medieval Death, Ritual and Representation (British Museum Press, 1996, repr. 2001)

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