Read Plagues and Peoples Online

Authors: William H. McNeill

Tags: #Non-fiction, #20th Century, #European History, #disease, #v.5, #plague, #Medieval History, #Social History, #Medical History, #Cultural History, #Biological History

Plagues and Peoples

BOOK: Plagues and Peoples
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Seldom in recent times has a new historical work drawn as much attention as P
, William H. McNeill’s account of the effects of disease on human history. Reviews included such comments as:

“A very remarkable and original book.… It is rewarding, immensely so, and well worth the effort.”



, a glorious successor to T
, integrates ecology and demography with politics and culture on a vast scale. A brilliantly conceptualized and challenging scholarly achievement.”

Kirkus Reviews


“The volume provides fascinating reading and emphasizes a perspective on events that is not often found in the treatment of history. The reader, once started, will find it difficult to lay the book down.… The book can be unhesitatingly recommended.”



“Far-reaching … certain to provoke wide debate … original and exciting.”

Publishers Weekly


“A brilliant book.”



“In P
, a fascinating exercise in historical speculation, William H. McNeill argues convincingly for the extraordinary impact of disease on human history.”

The Progressive


“The scholarship the author displays in this study is dazzling.… P
is a very skillful work.… It will fascinate and intrigue us.”



“A brilliant and challenging thesis supported by fascinating examples.”

New Tork


“This is an important, original, and well-researched work.”

Library Journal



Sunday Herald


“University of Chicago professor William H. McNeill in his P
describes, with an impressive accumulation of evidence, the frequent and decisive role that disease has played in man’s historical development.”

Baton Rouge
Sunday Advocate


“[An] intriguing new interpretation of world history.”

San Francisco


“He does a commendable job in providing a surprising amount of the details of even sometimes overlooked epidemics and plagues.”

Daily News


“This amazingly detailed book … certainly offers an insight into the disasters of nature which have swept the world’s population at one time or another.”



“A novel study by a noted historian.… With expert reinterpretation of past events, supported by scientific detail, McNeill makes a strong case.”

American Library Association


“Enlightening.… P
definitely is recommended reading.”

Grand Rapids


“McNeill ably and in extremely scholarly fashion offers an impressive accumulation of evidence to demonstrate the central role of pestilence in human affairs and the extent to which it has changed the course of human history.”

Clarion-Ledger/Daily News


ANCHOR BOOKS EDITIONS, 1977, 1989, 1998


Copyright © 1976 by William H. McNeill
Preface copyright © 1998 by William H. McNeill


All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1977. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.


Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.


The map, “The Spread of the Black Death in Europe,” is reprinted by permission of the
Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations
and appeared in the
, 17, in the article “Autour de la Peste Noire: Famines et Epidémies dans l’Histoire du XIV
Siècle,” by Elizabeth Carpentier (1962, pp. 1062–92).


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

McNeill, William H.

Plagues and peoples / William H McNeill,

p. cm.

Reprint. Originally published: Garden City, N.Y.:

Anchor Press, 1976.

1. Epidemics—History. 2. Civilization—History.

I. Title.

RA649.M3 1989 89–27689


eISBN: 978-0-307-77366-1




his book was composed in the spring and sum mer of 1974 and corrected in the spring of 1975. In between, a rough draft was circulated to the following readers for their expert criticism: Alexandre Bennigsen, James Bowman, Francis Black, John Z. Bowers, Jerome Bylebyl, L. Warwick Coppleson, Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., Philip Curtin, Allen Debus, Robert Fogel, Ping-ti Ho, Laverne Kuhnke, Charles Leslie, George LeRoy, Stuart Ragland, Donald Rowley, Olaf K. Skinsnes, H. Burr Steinbach, John Woods. The manuscript also benefited from a panel discussion at a meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine, May 1975, at which Saul Jarcho, Barbara G. Rosenkrantz, John Duffy, and Guenter B. Risse commented on what they had read. Subsequently, in the autumn of 1975, Barbara Dodwell read
Chapter IV
and Hugh Scogin worked over Chinese data for me; between them they led me to adjust the way I understand the propagation of the Black Death. Fortunately it proved possible to insinuate appropriate adjustments into the text at the last minute.

This episode illustrates how tentative many of the assertions and suggestions of this book are and must remain until epidemiologically informed researches have been undertaken in Chinese and other ancient records. Suggestions and corrections from the entire array of readers permitted improvement of the original version in numerous details and steered me away from some silly errors; but needless to say, I remain responsible for what appears below, including any and all residual errors.

A generous grant from the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation permitted time away from normal academic duties for the completion of this essay. I was assisted by Edward Tenner, Ph.D., who looked things up for me in European languages, and by Joseph Cha, Ph.D., who consulted Chinese and Japanese texts on my behalf and compiled the roster of Chinese epidemics that appears in the Appendix. Without their help the task would have taken longer and, in particular, my remarks about the Far East would have been far sketchier. Marnie Veghte twice typed the text with cheerful accuracy and admirable speed. Charles Priester of Anchor Press/Doubleday asked suitably pointed questions to provoke me to improve the original manuscript in important ways.

To all who thus assisted in bringing this book to birth, I am sincerely grateful.

H. M
15 December 1975


eaders of a book about epidemic infections, like this one, are sure to wonder why it contains no mention of AIDS. The reason is simple. That disease was identified and named only in 1981–82, some six years after
Plagues and Peoples
was published. Since then, the AIDS epidemic has been a major driving force behind the continued interest in what this book has to say about earlier epidemics and human responses to them, and perhaps it is time to acknowledge that fact and say something about the disease that has attracted so much attention since it was first identified.

The climate of medical opinion has changed considerably since this book came out, for in 1976 many doctors believed that infectious diseases had lost their power to affect human lives seriously. Scientific medicine, they supposed, had finally won decisive victory over disease germs. Newly discovered antibiotics and relatively simple prophylactic and public health measures had at last made infections easy to prevent and cure. The World Health Organization actually succeeded in eliminating smallpox from the face of the earth in the same year
this book was published, and optimists believed that other infections, like measles, might go the same way if sufficient medical effort were put into worldwide campaigns to isolate and cure each and every infection.

A glance at my concluding remarks on
this page
will show that I did not accept this view of what doctors had accomplished, and it is now clear that the elimination of smallpox in 1976 was the high point of the World Health Organization’s remarkably successful post-World War II campaign to reduce human deaths from infections. Thereafter, infectious organisms launched a counteroffensive. The appearance of AIDS was the first notable landmark of this process; and despite initial expectations, the subsequent identification of the HIV-1 virus that causes AIDS has not yet led to a cure.

Development of resistant strains of malaria, TB, and other familiar infections was a second, and in many ways more important, sign that twentieth-century victories over the parasitic microorganisms that feed upon our bodies was only an unusually dramatic and drastic disturbance of the age-old balance between human hosts and disease organisms. As the century comes to its close, it seems sure that infections are coming back, regaining some of their old importance for human life; and medical men have begun to recognize how their increasingly powerful interventions had the unexpected effect of accelerating the biological evolution of disease germs, making them impervious to one after another form of chemical attack.

BOOK: Plagues and Peoples
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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