Plagues and Peoples
William H. McNeill
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Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. With the identification of AIDS in the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle of events, which William McNeill explores in his new introduction to this updated editon.
Thought-provoking, well-researched, and compulsively readable, Plagues and Peoples is that rare book that is as fascinating as it is scholarly, as intriguing as it is enlightening. "A brilliantly conceptualized and challenging achievement" (Kirkus Reviews), it is essential reading, offering a new perspective on human history.
structures, values, and individual inventiveness all played a role in defining the over-all result: but in light of what can now be said about the retreat of plague, malaria, and other infectious diseases from the English countryside, together with England’s head start in the deliberate control of smallpox, it seems clear enough that divergent disease experiences in the two countries had much to do with their divergent population histories. Shifting patterns of disease therefore take a place as
difficulties, thanks to exhaustion of one or another key resource, human ingenuity found new ways to live, tapping new resources, and thereby expanded our dominion over animate and inanimate nature, time and again. Riches in the form of woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and other large and inexperienced animals that awaited human slaughter did not endure for long. Indeed, one calculation suggests that skilled and wasteful human hunters took a mere thousand years to exterminate most large-bodied
epidemic, therefore, was to strengthen Christian churches at a time when most other institutions were being discredited. Christian writers were well aware of this source of strength, and sometimes boasted of the way in which Christians offered each other mutual help in time of pestilence whereas pagans fled from the sick and heartlessly abandoned them.63 Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teachings of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising
their rivals. Exactly how Hansen’s disease passes from host to host remains unsure even today; but it is clear that the disease is not very contagious. The bacillus seems to establish itself in a new host only after prolonged contact. It is easy to imagine, therefore, that if pulmonary tuberculosis did in fact become more prevalent in Europe after 1346, it could have interrupted the infectious chain of Hansen’s disease, provoking a higher level of resistance in European bloodstreams simply by
seventeenth centuries aimed at hiding sex, as well as other bodily functions. This in turn presupposed that enough cloth was available to cover human nakedness, even among the poor. The importance of these movements is indeed powerful, though indirect, evidence for the reality of my initial assumption that cloth did in fact become more abundant in Europe after 1346. Cold weather and increasing supplies of woolen textiles in Europe may therefore have confronted the bacillus of Hansen’s disease