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Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 28 September 2006
The return of the Black Death tries to give an overview of the spread of the the Plague during the middle ages and renaissance and tries to bedunk history with regards to the prevalent theories on the cause of this epidemic. And I must say it does it very well. It's a good history read with a healthy dose of science and rationality sprinkled on top. The writing style is engaging and understandable, even for a layman.

What most struck me is the amount of panic a small epidemic, like SARS, can generate in our modern world and how a major epidemic like HIV/AIDS, which kills millions per year, gets, relatively speaking, so little attention.

A recommended read and a real eye-opener.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 18 October 2005
This book is completely un-putdownable. A fantastic piece of detective work, tracing the origins, progress and final extinction of the Black Death that swept through Europe in waves throughout the centuries, interlaced with human stories and real sympathy with the immense suffering endured by many thousands of its victims. It was not bubonic plague at all, but haemorrhagic plague that decimated whole countries - a truly horrifying and thankfully extinct virus that was uncontrollable and invincible. It's infectious incubation period of about 30 days ensured it spread far and wide before sufferers were even aware they had it.Forget about all you heard about fleas and rats. Had it been bubonic plague, there would have been much less to worry about! The authors finally speculate on what comes next, and how would we deal with it (bird flu???)and what is the most gruesome disease we can die of today (has to be ebola!). A truly great book, and one to make us think.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A real eye opener. To find out the the black plague was not bubonic as commongly thought, but a haemorrhagic plague that killed not only thousands in the Uk, but millions world-wide. This plague returned to decimate entire cities time and time again over a period of 400 years or more, finally seeming to disappear around the early 18th century. Or is it just in hiding?

The book is well written and interesting and does not baffle you too much with science.

Haemorrhagic plague (I am reliably informed by the book!) is a very nasty little disease to catch. Like Ebola, the sufferer literally bleeds to death and his/her insides rot away, turning to liquid. The symptons of haemorrahgic plague are very similar to that of bubonic plague with the black `spots' or bubis being the blood showing under the skin. The final horrible, visible stages of the disease through to death are very painful and the sufferer experiences flu like symptons, vomiting blood, and diarrhea and finally falls into a coma. According to the book some sufferers were in so much pain that it drove them mad and they would throw themselves into the street screaming or even out of windows in a bid to escape the pain. These final symptons take place over a few days (from 5 to 12) and at present there is no known cure.

The authors set out to prove that the black death was caused by hemorrhagic plague, by showing the following differences: that the incubation and infectious period was a lot longer in heamorrhagic plague (approx 32 days) whereas the incubation period was a lot shorter in bubonic plague only 2 to 6 days. Therefore haemorrahagic plague was able to spread a lot wider as the killer symptoms only appeared in the final days of the disease and before that, the sufferer to all intents and purposes, seemed completely healthy. Bubonic plague is typically spread by rats and in accurate reports of bubonic plague, the biggest casualty is the rats themselves, no large number of dead rats were reported in the cases of the black death. Finally the black death spread over a large area very quickly, this would not have been possible if it had been spread by rats due to the short incubation period. It was more likely to have been spread by humans who traveled quickly on horseback and by carriage.

The final chapters look at the possibility of when it will return to Europe and look at what is likely to happen to the infrastructure when it does hit in large numbers. The authors believe that when it does reoccur, the only way to stop the spread is by quarantining large numbers of people, as there is no cure. These people are likely to die, but at least it will contain the disease. A nice thought to leave you with!!!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2007
The Government's own Health advice web site states that Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, the bacterium transmitted along the infamous rat-flea-human route.

This book proves that, whilst bubonic plague is caused this way, bubonic plague could not have been the agent responsible for the Black Death and many subsequent outbreaks of severe mortality, as it does not follow the correct epidemiology expected for such a vector. Bubonic plague expands at a few miles a year, whereas the Black Death covered an entire continent in two years.

A good book, possibly a bit lacking in scientific detail at times, and certainly plays too much on the modern need to feel that 'it might all happen again tomorrow'. It might, but that shouldn't really take up so much space here.

Certainly worth buying; it inspired me to look into it deeper.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2006
Think you 'know' about the fourteenth century plague ? It was ALL caused by the bubonic plague from rats - wasn't it ? In this book they lay out an alternative theory and back it up with epidemiological studies that use the historical accounts to support their theory about the main death toll being due to an alternative problem. It appears to be appropriately referenced and well researched and will be of interest to anyone with a lively interest in this great mortality within Europe (from 30-50% of the entire population living at the time).
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2004
I bought this book to while away the hours of a long train journey subject to endless delays. Little did I know that it would turn out to be one of the most stimulating, exciting and, yes, frightening books I have ever read. I couldn't put it down.
Like most people, I had thought that there was no mystery about the Black Death: it was the result of bubonic plague spread by rats and fleas. How wrong I was. Return of the Black Death very effectively explodes this myth and reveals the truth of the most appalling killer disease known to mankind. Not only was it an entirely different disease but, worryingly, it might still be around somewhere, waiting for the right time to strike again. The part of the book where the authors postulate how the Black Death might spread through the world today had my hair standing on end.
In summary, this is a gripping read which turns history on its head and suggests major thought-provoking consequences for us today.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 22 October 2008
This is in historical point of huge interest and potential importance. The idea that bubonic plague caused the Black Death is one that refuses to die, despite the clear and obvious (to anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge and understanding of the biology of bubonic plague)facts. This analysis should absolutely nail down the argument. Possibly it does but it won't convince a lot of historians. Not because they aren't right, but because they have somewhat fluffed the writing of this book.

The crux of it is that the introduction is overlong and the actual meat of the argument is skated over. If they are to overturn a century of accepted 'fact' they will need to set out their points in far more detail. They clearly feel that their argument is unassailable and doesn't need to be clearly made so they make it in a few short, punchy paragraphs. They may be right but this approach leaves them open to all sorts of come-back and fails to directly address many of the issues.

I'll get my criticism out of the way first. They dismiss bubonic plague too lightly. The main weakness of their position is that they cite far too few sources to adequately knock it down. Like many non-historians they only quote sources which agree with them and don't bother to actually tackle and knock down those which don't. The best example of this is rats. One scientist reports there were no rats in rural Medieval England. I don't doubt that this is true, but they have not given space to counter-argument to show why this is the correct interpretation. They only give one specific reason, that rat-proof dove-cotes did not exist and then state that these came into use when brown rats moved in. What about black rats the critics will cry. They do the same with the purported DNA evidence of yersina pestis in france. Again as amateurs do they try to conclusively knock down one expert with another of their own. I have no reason to trust their expert above the one claiming to have found plague. They must be much more definitive. They dismiss the French archaeological investigations far too lightly. This badly undermines their argument. It reads as sloppy and amateur stuff.

They deal with some crucial issues in a throwaway manner. They don't give adequate space to pneumonic plague. The answer given to doubters is 'it was spread person-to-person as pneumonic plague'. They dismiss it out of hand without really spelling out the biology and why pneumonic plague does not exist without bubonic. This is crucial and desperately needed solid scientific references. Likewise the human flea. they say it could not have passed on the disease but give no indication of why not. These two flaws alone give the pro-bubonic plague lobby the crack they need to shatter the whole thing.

Their whole section on bubonic plague needs much more fleshing out. They say it can't be bubonic plague as it spreads slowly then in the next section describe an outbreak of bubonic plague spreading across continents. They are just not specific enough about how slow it is, a few throwaway examples with no references don't wash. They completely fail to use the Marseilles Plague of 1722 to knock down bubonic plague. they feint at describing why the old Black Death precautions failed to work but don't flesh it out with explanations, statistics, etc.

Having said all that this is a very powerful work. The evidence they have is clearly absolutely conclusive. Their research has been extremely thorough and their credentials are unimpeachable. They should have got a 'proper' historian to advise them on how to set it out and set out argument. They write in that scientific style which I deeply dislike and which is too quick and sketchy, never really setting out their arguments in depth and ensuring that they preempt any counter-argument. Instead of saying 'here's my full argument' they say 'here is an outline of my argument, now go and replicate it', science not history on a historical topic for which a historical approach is needed as there is no real actual scientific evidence to go on.

Their conclusion is inescapable and terrifying. Black Death was not and could not have been bubonic plague. Any person with common sense can see this. They sadly missed the opportunity to nail this down once and for all. Excellent ideas and research, poorly set out. This review sounds far more negative than I want to be! It's a good book, fascinating and well-prepared. I am criticising because I think it is a shame that they let the argument slip through their fingers somewhat, not because they are wrong but because they get the writing a bit wrong. Better editing or more historical input would have turned this into an absolute classic.
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on 25 May 2012
Officially the Black Death appeared quite suddenly in Sicily in Italy in 1347, and went to kill almost 1/3 of Europe in about 3 years (in London it killed about 6000 people per week). The authors proves that those kind of plagues were not Bubonic Plague (chapter 11 is quite fascinating in that regard) and were not spread by rat fleas - but instead were the result of a lethal and highly infectious Ebola-like virus transmitted directly from person to person.

They also give a short overview of different plagues such as: the plague of Athens (fifth century BC), the plague of Justinian (sixth century AD), haemorrhagic plague in the Levant (the chroniclers record that there were five great plagues in Islamic history, starting from 627 AD), Yellow plague (sixth century AD, reappeared in the seventh) or haemorrhagic plague of Crimea. And with that last point, they are actually asking if the Black Death actually come directly from Crimea, following the well-established trade routes. They suggest that the epidemic at Caffa in 346 spread across the Black Sea and reached Constantinople a year later in 1347. From Constantinople it would then spread to Sicily, bringing the Black Death to Messina six months later (October 1347) -> although it may have travelled via Greece. According to them this scenario is more convincing (than any other scenario) with respect to the timing events (page 241).

They also find a surprising link between Black Death and AIDS. A detailed inspection of parish registers (in some of the villages) shows that many people must have been in close contact with infective indoors but did not contact the plague (and this indicated that some of them developed - or already had - a resistance to the disease). According to the authors, some of the ancestors of those people, probably have developed a genetic mutation in the CCR5 receptors on their white blood cells - which also means than an individuals who inherited a pair of mutated genes from both parents have nearly complete resistance to the disease (and more recently to HIV infection), whereas those who have only one copy of the mutation delay the onset of disease (chapter 15 offers much more detailed description than that). That would also explain why some people survived Black Death and others didn't - as according to the book, the first mutation of that gene appeared about 2000 years ago in Europe (and simply some people - who had that mutation - were immune to "Black Death" right from the beginning).

At the end, they also discuss what would happen if something like that could re-emerge. If we accept that the Black Death was not caused by bubonic plague (as the book proves quite well), it is also obvious that no known infectious agent was responsible - and that it was just one of a long line of emergent diseases that have affected humanity since the ancient times. Based on that, we should accept the fact, that something like a Black Death could emerge again in the future, but this time such an event could potentially have very serious consequences for our civilization.

I agree the book is sometimes a bit repetitive but I don't find it frustrating as some reviewers are saying (then again, that comes to a personal opinion). It's a fast and easy read (not "technical" at all), that gives the most probable answer(s) as to: where exactly the Black Death come from, how did it spread, what caused it, and why some people didn't get it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2009
This is compelling reading and undeniably a better explanation for 'the plague'. However if it is true, history should be re-written and the world health organisation needs to sit up and take notice as has serious implications for the future
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on 21 May 2013
This is an outstanding book which proposes a new theory of the cause of the black death. There are aspects which need discussing with the authors, but I belive that one has died. The evidence which led me to conclude that the black death was not caused by the fleas on rats was firstly the speed of the disease, secondly, the long incubation of the disease allowing individuals to spread it into the communities they have travelled to and showing no symptoms of the disease, thirdly the fact that there were no rats in Iceland (black and brown). This I felt was a really telling argument, so we could conclude (with reservations that it was a disease similar in nature to Ebola/Marlburg).
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