Cohn, Samuel K Jr. The Black Death Transformed Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. 318p. Co published, New York: New York, 2002 and London: England, 2002.
All history students have some knowledge of the Black Death or bubonic plague. There are hundreds of books that tell you that the Black Death from 1347-52, wiped out around forty percent of medieval Europe. Many scholars have identified the Black Death and bubonic plague as the same disease. Samuel K. Cohen narrative is based on evidence that the “Black Death in Europe, 1347-52, and its successive waves to the eighteenth century was any disease other than the rat-based bubonic plague (now known as Yersinia pestis), whose bacillus was discovered in 1894.”
The author attempts to prove this thesis “by turning to the sources afresh, first the narrative ones-over 400 chronicles and 250 plague tracts, these chronicles describe the signs and symptoms of the plague.” These chronicles point to differences in contagion, differences in the death toll between the two plagues, acquired immunity over time, and the rapid movement of the Black Death to circumnavigate most of the then known world in five years, whereas modern plague travelled slowly.
Samuel K Cohn has sought to liberate and enlighten students of the fundamental importance of the Black Death on late Medieval and Renaissance society. To understand history we must be able to connect the scientific, natural, and social world. Samuel K Cohn believes historians should take bio-medical research and place the two diseases in the same sphere. Cohn believes that war, natural disasters and bio-medical diseases they should all be analysed and compared. For example, war has the same effects on society as it did 10000 years ago and we have identified and acknowledged the differences in sexually transmitted diseases so why not correct our history books and separate these two diseases in their respected time. The following paragraphs will summarize the author’s thesis, and give a critical analysis of the book. Our conclusion will analyse how well he defended his thesis statement.
Cohn’s work is monumental because his approach is monographic, polemic, chronological, biographical, and institutional. Cohn is an historian who brilliantly places the bio-researcher on the pedestal by using their data along with the biographical letters from the 14th century to prove his claim. His book is also institutional in that he backs up his thesis with some of the greatest scientific minds of the modern era. Ernest Hanbury Hankin (1865-1939), is one of the brilliant scientists that he uses to prove his thesis that the Black Death and modern day plague are two different diseases. Hankin research points to rats as not being the direct cause or spread of contagion to humans in his present day India. Hankin states that the rats did not surface and die, domestic animals did not die in the fields and people did not die in such large volumes.” Therefore different symptoms and affective on population and the eco system should mean that the two diseases are none the same.
“Cohn book focuses on letters written by medieval doctors and eye witness accounts of plague survivors living in the territories of Rome, Puglia, Tuscany and Parma.” The books main purpose is not to denounce the Black Death as a hoax but to place the schematic of plague in a separate sphere. The author believes that it is necessary to separate the Black Death from modern plague because the two diseases have several distinct characteristics. The four main variant consisted of plague lasting through the year in places with a wide variety of temperatures, the distinct buboes in the groin and underarms, modern plague only occurring when the temperatures were hot and humid, and the high mortality rates in households and communities. Moreover, anyone who survived the plague would develop immunity to the disease. This was not the case with modern day plague, which had a mortality rate of less than 3 percent of the population.
This is an interesting book because it raises new issues about an old subject. This book is an excellent primary source for students looking to write a research paper. The author succeeds in proving his thesis, he raises good points to make us aware that the two diseases are different; however, his hypothesis is very weak because he refuses to identify the similarities in modern plague and the Black Death. Cohn credits Alexandre Yersin for developing a serum and finding the bacteria that causes the plague, however, he fails to point out that Yersin identified that the bacteria was present in the rodent as well as in the human, thus hiding other possible means of transmission. Furthermore, Cohn fails to display that DNA traces of Yersinia pestis were found on the teeth of buried victims that date from the 14th century and 5th century.
In conclusion, Samuel K. Cohn is a great historian; however, he is too determined to protect his thesis. I come to this conclusion because I realize that environmental history is more factual if all the evidence is studied. Environmental history teaches me that climate changes and other natural phenomena’s are all part of an ecological clock. Europe experienced a small ice age in the 9th, 13th and 17th century. Bubonic plague was also active in the 4th century BC, 4TH century AD and 14th century AD. This could mean that the Black Death is only dormant. Finally, it is more conceivable that humans and animals have evolved to engineer some resistant that make the plague less volatile. I would consider Samuel K. Cohn, novel an exceptional narration for the discipline of history, however, the research is too one sided for a bio medical historical narrative
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