The Great Mortality by John Kelly

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Great Mortality:

If you think the coronavirus sucks…

Quick synopsis:

A look at the Black Death as it raged across Europe.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In Italy, some towns saw over an 80% death rate. Think of 10 of your neighbors. 8 of them would have been dead during the Black Death. Or you would be.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The Bubonic Plague actually needed two kinds of hosts to do what it did. It needed one rat, for instance, which was resistant to the disease and could act as an indefinite host. The second, without resistance, would die and cause the fleas carrying the disease to find new hosts. Everyone got screwed!

My Take on The Great Mortality:

The Great Plague is one of the hardest historical events to wrap your head around. It was very long ago, and the sheer number of deaths make it impossible to conceptualize. Estimates range from 75 to 200 million people died during the Black Death (which is the second outbreak of the plague, there were three). For comparison, the US currently has about 320 million people.

Kelly takes an interesting approach in his narrative. He gives the basic genesis of the disease and then each chapter after takes you to a new town as the plague begins to ravage it. Some stories are somewhat happy but mostly they are just soul crushing stories of death and destruction.

It is a very effective narrative device. Johnson brings the human element to something beyond any one person to drive home the helplessness of living during this time.

You may want to have a drink handy when you read this.


A great book as far as the history goes. It is more academic than like a novel so it may not be great for non-nerds. It’s also depressing as hell. Buy it here!

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