Late in the year 1347 a new and terrible disease arrived in Europe from the Tartar regions north of Constantinople, carried first by Genoese merchants vainly fleeing from a pestilence that raced faster than war horses. It was said to have been introduced into the Genoese trading community at Caffa in the Crimea by a besieging Tartar army, who deliberately catapulted the infected corpses of their own dead across the city walls. Originating ten years or more before in the steppes of Asia, the plague had already decimated the populations of China, India, Transoxiana, Persia, and southern Rus- sia. By the spring of 1348 it had galloped through Italy and had reached the papal court in exile in the south of France at Avignon (where it was thought that as many as 62,000 died, and where Pope Clement VI ordered huge new graveyards to be conse- crated to hold the mounting piles of dead). By June it was in Paris, by November in southern Austria. That autumn the plague entered England simultaneously though the West Country seaports and through London. From there it spread at once to Ireland, by November it had reached Bergen, and so on to the rest of northwest Europe, Scandinavia, even remote Iceland.

Sufferers from the disease developed flu symptoms such as fever and shivering; blackened buboes or swellings appeared in the groin, neck, and armpits, charged with dark and vile-smelling pus. Many also suffered purple or red discolorations under the skin, internal bleeding, and bloody urine, diarrhea, or vomiting. Death seems often to have come from a pneumonia-like flooding of the lungs, and though sometimes delayed as much as eight days, could also occur very soon after the first appearance of infection—stories were told of doctors or priests ministering to the victims in the morning and being dead themselves by nightfall.

Historians are undecided about the precise scale of mortality. Until recently the consensus suggested something between one third and one half of the population of Europe. More recent studies, including those under review, are inclined to push the numbers higher. Medieval observers were in no doubt that this was the worst Visitation of God since the Flood, feared the imminent end of the world, and offered terrifyingly large estimates of the dead. The poet Boccaccio thought that 100,000 had succumbed in his native Florence alone (unlikely, since the city’s fourteenth-century population was almost certainly nearer 80,000!). But at the height of the infection as many as two hundred corpses a day were being collected for burial from the streets of London. In this as in so much else, England is the best-documented country in late-medieval Europe, and calculations based on sources such as manorial rent rolls, or statistics of clerics who took over livings vacated by death, suggest that at least half the population there may have died in the eighteen months after the arrival of the disease.

From the eye of the storm, it seemed possible that no one would be left to tell the tale. Brother John Clynn, the Franciscan chronicler of the disease in the Irish cathedral town of Kilkenny, who himself fell victim, noted that he was leaving blank pages in his book “in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work.” All over Europe, the living were barely able to keep up with the disposal of the dead, stacked one above the other in deep plague pits like logs in a woodpile or, as one Italian observer noted, like the layers in lasagna.

The nature of this horrifying disease itself is obscure. The title by which it is generally known, the Black Death, is a modern coinage based on one of the more striking symptoms. Medieval science could describe the plague, but not diagnose it. The medical faculty of the University of Paris, consulted by the King of France, attributed the outbreak to the malign conjunction of the planets Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars at 1:00 PM on March 20, 1345. Preventative measures included sniffing sponges soaked in vinegar, or posies of flowers and aromatic spices, or, in total contrast, the accumulated and fetid contents of chamber pots and privies. Remedies included the lancing of blisters and buboes, the administration of laxatives, vomits, and bleeds, or the drinking of treacles made from boiled and fermented ingredients such as snakeskin.

Twentieth-century historians, struck by similarities with modern epidemics in India, have overwhelmingly concluded that the Black Death was a combination of bubonic and pneumonic plague, caused by the bacteria Yersina pestis or Pasteurella pestis, and spread by the bite of the rat flea, Xenopsylla chepsis. The intestine of fleas infected with bubonic plague fills with congealed blood. The flea becomes voraciously hungry, and so more than usually aggressive. Because of its full gut, it regurgitates infected matter into its victims at every bite, and so the plague spreads.


But there are problems with this explanation. Bubonic plague slows down in the winter, when rat populations dwindle or become torpid or die, but the Black Death showed no such slackening. Pneumonic plague can flourish in cold weather, but the plague appeared in places where there were few or no rats, like Iceland. The suggestion that the famished fleas had transferred themselves to human hosts, or into woolen goods in peddler’s packs, or into bales of imported cloth helps, but does not quite account for the astonishing race of the disease across Europe. These difficulties have convinced Norman Cantor that the claim of British zoologist Graham Twigg that the plague was actually a form of anthrax or some similar cattle murrain should be taken seriously.

There is a real issue here, but the difficulty with Twigg’s (and Cantor’s) solution is that though observers in Constantinople claimed that flocks of birds had died from the disease (raising the possibility that it was spread by airborne carriers) there is not much evidence of widespread mortality among livestock. Recently, and too late for any of these authors to consider, a team of specialists in historical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool have argued persuasively that the plague was not a bacterial disease at all, but a viral infection similar to the devastating hemorrhagic fever spread by the Ebola virus in late-twentieth-century Africa.

The Black Death was without question the greatest calamity in European history, inspiring hysterical processions of penitents scourging themselves with spiked whips to avert the anger of God, and setting off murderous pogroms against the Jews of Europe, who, despite attempts to protect them by Pope Clement VI, were widely blamed for poisoning their Gentile neighbors. What happens, then, to a panic-stricken civilization brought to the brink of oblivion by death on this sudden, vast, and uncontrollable scale? How do people who have lost entire families or helped bury half their neighbors cope with such losses? How do institutions—the manor, the courts, the Church—faced with the disappearance of more than half their personnel, change? What happens to agriculture when there are not enough peasants to till the fields, or to sexual morality when it seems that there will be no tomorrow, or to political and social subservience when Death the Leveler sweeps the rich and powerful away along with the poor and weak, or to religious faith when horror so vast and undiscriminating is sent, as everyone then believed, from the hand of God?

These are just some of the questions which both John Aberth and Norman Cantor address in their studies of the Black Death and its consequences. Both books draw on much the same body of secondary literature, and both, because of the abundance of documentation, focus primarily on England. Aberth’s book, From the Brink of the Apocalypse, is the wider in scope, for whereas Cantor restricts himself to the plague, Aberth tackles all the major calamities of the later Middle Ages, structuring his analysis around the Four Horsemen in the New Testament vision of the opening of the Seals in the sixth chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John—Plague on a white horse and armed with a bow; War on a red horse, armed with a sword; Famine on a black horse, armed with a pair of weighing scales; and Death on a pale horse, leading hell behind him.

These terrifying figures, often invoked as harbingers of judgment in medieval preaching and writing, provide Aberth with pegs on which to hang his discussion of the major problems afflicting European civilization from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Well and imaginatively illustrated with copious quotations from medieval writing and pictures in black and white, Aberth’s book also provides a number of original tables and appendices on issues ranging from clerical mortality during the plague to the propaganda inspired by the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

Death and the Apocalypse play a part in Cantor’s book, too, and Plague on his white horse bestrides its cover. Cantor himself is a senior and established scholar, author of a batch of well-known books from a controversial survey of modern writing on the Middle Ages to a general history of the Jews. In the Wake of the Plague comes armed with a publisher’s description of the author as “the premier historian of the Middle Ages,” and with a brace of enthusiastic endorsements praising the book for “trenchancy, economy, and discrimination.” Trenchant it surely is, apparently composed not at the desk but over the cracker-barrel, laced with aphorisms, asides, and blunt expressions of opinion intended to make complex matters plain to the simplest man or woman. Aimed at a popular audience, it includes a chapter exploring sympathetically Fred Hoyle’s suggestion that the plague might have come from outer space. Cantor opts for a concrete personal approach to larger historical issues. The impact of the plague on the Plantagenet monarchy is analyzed in a chapter on the daughter of Edward III, the Princess Joan, who died of plague at Bordeaux on her way to marry the heir to the throne of Castile. The impact on religion, philosophy, and science are examined in a chapter on the death of Thomas Bradwardine, the remarkable philosopher, mathematician, and theologian who succumbed to the plague soon after his consecration as archbishop of Canterbury. This is an imaginative approach, which makes for a vivid and memorable text.


Unfortunately, however, memorability is too often purchased at the cost of nuance of judgment and subtlety of thought. Reaching for accessibility, Cantor’s book is far too frequently merely crude and opinionated: oversimplifications, rank prejudice, and downright errors are all presented with the same immense air of assurance. The many small errors are rarely serious, but are a constant irritant to anyone who thinks that history books should try to get the facts right. So we are told that medieval people stopped taking baths because of the plague, in whose wake “Europe entered the pungent no-bath era.” In fact frequent bathing, never an option for the poor, had been increasingly unfashionable even with the rich since the fall of the Roman Empire, and in the later Middle Ages was widely associated with brothels and houses of ill repute. Long before the plague era the monks of the great abbey of Cluny, where standards of hygiene were probably a good deal higher than in most secular houses, were expected to bathe no more than twice a year.

Similarly, Cantor simplistically attributes the growing late-medieval market for large tapestries filled with scenes from popular romances to the demand of the wealthy for plague-proof coverings for doors and windows, a monocausal medical explanation for a cultural fashion which certainly requires a more complex interpretation. Cantor tells us that the fifteenth-century heretical movement known as Lollardy set up “counter-churches” and eventually retreated to “the northern granges and ranches.” Most students of Lollardy agree, however, that it is best considered as a school or movement, but not a counter-church (Lollards continued to attend their parish churches, which is why so many were caught). They were moreover notably sparse in the north of England, and their strongholds were in fact in southern counties, like Buckinghamshire and Kent.

Cantor tells us that the medieval poem Pearl was first edited in the 1920s by J.R.R. Tolkien: in fact, it was first edited by R. Morris in 1864, again by C. Osgood in 1906, and twice in the 1920s by Israel Gollancz. Tolkien however abandoned his projected edition, eventually published in 1953 under the sole name of his collaborator, E.V. Gordon. In one of many asides designed to illustrate medieval events by reference to nineteenth-century literature, Cantor assures us that Thomas Hardy’s novels are set in Devon (they are actually set in Dorset). And, in a different mode altogether, he tells us that “almost no one in the optimistic Middle Ages was consigned to hell in the afterlife,” a perception that would have amazed Dante, whose Inferno is an unforgettable procession of the damned, and the painters of a thousand Last Judgment scenes, in which the torments of Hell are copiously and excruciatingly portrayed.

This stream of inaccuracy and skewed judgment saps one’s confidence, but the quality of Cantor’s larger analysis is hardly more inspiring. It is difficult to take seriously his suggestion that the gruesome murder of the homosexual king Edward II, with a red-hot poker pushed up his anus, was caused not merely by contemporary hostility to the deposed king’s sexual orientation (likely enough) but that, preposterously, it was also the result of climatic change, a symptom of “the general malaise, anger, and pessimism of the new age of global cooling.” Cantor becomes particularly dismissive whenever he deals with clergy, for whom he seems to have a particular loathing. So he tells us that the prime concern of abbots was “force-feeding the fat monks,” bishops “mumble” their sermons, even when preaching before kings, bloated popes wash down “exquisite and lengthy feasts” with fresh Rhone wine. And here is Cantor’s analysis of the motives and aspirations of religious leaders of every creed:

Religious authorities, whether priests or rabbis, are always in the front ranks of celebrants of the marriage of the scions of rich families. It was and is an appearance they relish making, and not just because of the succulent gifts that they will receive from the families involved. They are happy to perform ceremonies in festive and lavishly decorated surroundings that the rich and powerful own.

He is hardly subtler on the affections of the laity. Here he is on medieval marriage: “If a queen or other rich woman did not get pregnant and give birth she was shunted off to a nunnery and a new, younger, and perhaps more fruitful wife was chosen.” And here he is on the politics of the English aristocracy:

The only issue that could truly engage the House of Lords for a few months was the hateful pursuit of some royal favorite, usually gay. That normally ended in violence and the great men then dispersed to their country estates and resumed their well-tilled behavior of feasting, drinking, hunting, and sex.

For all their undoubted raciness, Cantor’s Middle Ages come across as alien and repellent, a moral freak-show, where virtually nobody has high ideals or human decency, almost nobody does their job well, almost nobody deserves our respect. If you think that the past was peopled by grotesques and gargoyles, that virtually all priests were sycophantic gluttons, all peasants downtrodden, all landowners brutes, all kings tyrants—if you think that every motive was base, every relationship exploitative, every marriage a conveyor belt for property or a joyless machine for making (male) babies—you will probably enjoy this book.

Aberth’s From the Brink of the Apocalypse, with a chapter on the plague covering much of the same ground as Cantor’s book, and a good deal more, is a welcome contrast. Thorough, balanced, and courteous in tone, this survey of the social, political, and moral landscape of the late Middle Ages inspires confidence even when it invites disagreement. Aberth is especially good on the literature and visual art of the period. His wide-ranging and well-illustrated chapter on death in particular offers a splendidly comprehensive overview of a subject which has latterly attracted a great deal of first-rate research and writing.

Until recently, historians have tended to emphasize the pessimism and morbidity of the period after the Black Death—in a famous phrase of Johan Huizinga’s, “no other epoch has laid so much stress as the expiring Middle Ages on the thought of death.” Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages was the principal monument to that perception, though in fact it said nothing whatever about the plague. Huizinga nevertheless welded into the twentieth-century historical imagination the perception that the late Middle Ages were “expiring,” a period of collapse and decay when institutions, beliefs, and ideas were breaking down.

In line with more recent assessments of the period, Aberth is far more upbeat; some readers may think too much so. He denies, for example, that medieval Memento Mori monuments are in the least morbid, even the gruesome fifteenth-century “transi tombs” in which prelates and princes were portrayed on the top of the tomb nobly dressed and peacefully laid to rest, but displayed grotesquely in a lower tier as rotting corpses locked in rigor mortis and crawling with vermin. For Aberth, such depictions have to be placed in the context not of modern materialism or nihilism, but of medieval eschatological and apocalyptic hope. Viewed thus, these tombs can be seen to represent the “perfectly balanced union of two sensibilities, mortification and glorification, fear and hope, that make up the process of death and resurrection.”

For him, therefore, the late-medieval period is marked not by breakdown and despair, but by a remarkable resilience and adaptability. Confronted with the worst that nature, God, and the misdeeds of mankind could throw at them, medieval people adapted and survived. Despite war, plague, famine, and death, by the end of the medieval period they

had launched a new peace, liberated serfs, rediscovered mysticism, and developed a literature and art that became the foundation for the Renaissance. At the brink of the Apocalypse, they had wrested hope from despair.

While students of the late Middle Ages will certainly want to question or modify some of Aberth’s judgments and to shade the sunlight that bathes the picture he paints, his handsome, accessible, and well-written book will give them an excellent introduction to a fascinating period of history.

War, plague, famine, and death were not, of course, the monopoly of the Middle Ages: the most memorable visual evocation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse comes not from medieval England but from Renaissance Germany. In 1498 the young Albrecht Dürer published a set of full-page illustrations of the Book of Revelation, accompanied by the full Latin and German text. The fourth of this mesmerizing set of fifteen pictures is one of the most famous images in Western art, portraying the terrifying gallop of the Four Horsemen not, as in most medieval representations, as single figures trotting out one by one, but in a headlong and violent tumble of death and destruction. Dürer’s image was topical in the extreme—he dressed War and Plague as Turkish Janissaries, a reflection of contemporary European fear of the armies of Islam massed to the south and east, and his figure of Famine is not a famished specter but a fat German banker, clutching his money scales and clad in opulent contemporary dress, the cause of starvation in others, himself the picture of heedless prosperity. But in other respects Dürer’s visual commentary on the Book of Revelation looks back rather than forward, the exegesis it embodied rooted in medieval Catholic biblical commentary which was inclined to read the Book of Revelation as a generalized portrayal of the struggle of good and evil in the world rather than a detailed prediction of imminent events.

All that was about to change. Fourteen ninety-eight, the year of Dürer’s Apocalypse, was also the year in which the Dominican friar Savonarola was strangled and burned in Florence. For a few years his fiery preaching had determined the politics of the city, for he had seen in the Book of Revelation a detailed depiction of the ills of Italy and of the Church, and a key to political action. Savonarola identified the Antichrist not merely with the Turks, but with the current pope, Alexander VI. In this he was following the lead of earlier medieval radicals, like the wilder wing of the Franciscan movement, but he was also anticipating an emphasis that the Protestant reformers would push to unprecedented extremes. In the fevered atmosphere of Reformation Germany the Book of Revelation would take on a new and menacing significance. Not merely bad popes but the papacy itself would be demonized as the Antichrist of ancient prophecy. The horrific images of the Apocalypse—the seven-headed dragon, the Whore of Babylon—would be applied now to the Catholic Church, the dragon’s heads adorned with the papal tiara, and Christian Rome would become the target of prophetic invective devised originally for the pagan empire. As Europe plunged into religious war, the spectres of Revelation emerged to stalk the modern world.

Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell have had the splendid idea of writing a history of the Reformation and its aftermath from this apocalyptic perspective. Over the last generation, historians of early modern Europe have become intensely aware of the influence of utopian expectation, religious prophecy, and apocalyptic fervor on the course of religious, political, and social change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This insight has been fruitfully applied to events ranging from the German Peasants’ Revolt of the 1520s and the Anabaptist seizure of the city of Munster in the 1530s to the English Civil War five generations later. Ideas and imagery once perceived as marginal excursions into madness are now recognized as important elements in the intellectual culture of the rich, the powerful, and the educated, as well as of the disturbed and dispossessed.

Alongside that perception has gone a deepening appreciation of the enormous influence not merely of the printed word, but of the printed image in early modern Europe: metal and woodblock printing emerged as a means of instruction, of comment, of propaganda. That appreciation was brilliantly embodied in the work of the late Robert Scribner, one of the most innovative and perceptive social historians of the German Reformation, and one of the pioneers of the use of the printed image as a source for the history of popular Reformation mentalité. Scribner’s untimely death was a major blow to Reformation studies and early modern history generally, but his beneficial influence is evident everywhere in this book, his work constantly cited and his hints followed up: he would have warmly approved of it.

Cunningham and Grell therefore have composed their book, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, around a fascinating series of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century prints and paintings, illustrating the themes of war, plague, famine, and faith. Faith, rather than death, for one of the striking new developments of the Reformation era was the identification of the rider on the white horse as the preaching of the Protestant gospel, even with Luther himself, smiting all before him with the arrow of God’s word. They are therefore able to place religion at the center of their account, seeing in it the engine behind so many of the traumatic upheavals of the period.

The result is a gripping and original study, which brings home the extent to which the sixteenth century, just as much as the twentieth, was a visual culture, in which pictures could shape opinion and determine action. The pictures discussed range from crude but effective and funny propaganda prints—the devil crouched on gallows excreting monks and popes—to the genuinely disturbing, like the horrifying image of Queen Mary Tudor’s Catholic bishops as robed wolves biting the necks of Protestant “sheep” and drinking chalices of blood.

The book conveys, too, the enormous variety in the visual world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—news pictures of major events like the attrocities of the Spanish forces in the Netherlands, the liberation of cities or the outcome of battles, diagrams detailing treatment for the plague or the pox, astrological accounts of comets and portents, sensational depictions of monstrous births or miraculous fishes, allegorical pictures of the horrors of war or the confrontations between confessional armies. All these are skillfully combined to produce a rich account of the intellectual setting of the religious upheavals of the early modern period.

Cunningham and Grell have a broad knowledge of the Protestant literature of the period (they concentrate predominantly on Reformation rather than Catholic Europe, and there remains an unfilled need to register the centrality of printed images for Catholics as well as Protestants of the period). But they repeatedly bring word and image deftly and usefully together. Inevitably, a book built around a series of images will occasionally seem weak on structure, with sections of chapters only loosely related, as we are led onomatopoetically through themes ranging from “war, weapons, wounds” to “food, feast, famine.” Overall, however, the book holds together remarkably well and gives an illuminating commentary on an archive of revealing and unusual pictures, as well as a convincing sense of the mental world of Reformation Europe. Dürer’s familiar apocalyptic fantasy of the Four Horsemen remains by a long way the most memorable picture in the book. But Cunningham and Grell have done us all a favor in making available, and intelligible, so many lesser but almost equally interesting images.

This Issue

May 23, 2002