Men have often been distressed by death. Economic restructuring, changes in artistic themes, religious revival are just a few of these changes. The Black Death in particular, but also the various other epidemics or diseases forged a society and profoundly transformed it in many areas, as the book shows very well. Plagues and epidemics in the Middle Ages by François de Lannoy published by Éditions Ouest-France.
After a brief introduction, the author devotes his first chapter to the description of the plague. After an analysis of the history of the discovery and the main characteristics according to modern science, the conclusions of medieval scientists are evoked as well as the main episodes of the Black Death in the West. The author gives a great deal of information on the various episodes or places where the plague struck. This can give a monotonous character in the form of a list which may put off some readers. The next chapter entitled Fighting the Plague shows the different reactions to the epidemic: prayer, processions, flight, closing the city gates, isolation of the sick or the dead, cremation of the dead, expulsion of the sick, etc. These preventive measures are combined with measures against infection: in addition to burning the homes of plague victims, street maintenance takes an important place at this time. Finally, various and varied remedies have been developed and administered to patients. The following chapter is more synthetic and looks at the various consequences of the plague, whether social, economic, psychological or religious. Inserts are offered on plague and war or plague and art.
The second part of the work, shorter, is devoted to other epidemics of the Middle Ages: burning sickness, fevers erupting or not, dysentery, typhus and scurvy. The last chapter looks at another scourge that was very present in the Middle Ages. The title "Leprosy, endemic rather than epidemic" announces the author's words: if it is emblematic of this time nowadays with the famous leper colonies, it would seem that it affected relatively few people as shown by a a number of recent studies on this subject. Leprosy gradually recedes from the end of the 13th century before completely disappearing in the 17th century. This disease symbolizes impurity or heresy: lepers are sometimes victims, scapegoats of the misfortunes of the time. Leper hospitals and the living conditions of patients in these institutions are also mentioned.
The very richly illustrated, relatively short and accessible book offers us a summary that will delight curious people who are sensitive to these issues. If the book suffers at times from a catalog effect, the overall quality is not called into question. It helps to become aware of the importance of diseases in societies and the major impact of epidemics on economic, cultural or social developments. A very good introduction supplemented by a summary bibliography at the end of the work which allows to deepen a certain number of points. A book to recommend for a general overview on the epidemics and diseases of the Middle Ages.
Plagues and epidemics in the Middle Ages, by François de Lannoy. Editions Ouest-France, May 2016.