Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic: Voices from History

Book review

By Editor: Peter Furtado; reviewed by Trevor James, published 15th June 2021

Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic: Voices from History, [ed] Peter Furtado, Thames and Hudson, 2021, 335p, £20-00. ISBN 978-0-500-25258-1.

This book is very timely in its arrival. Peter Furtado, the former Editor of History Today, has provided us with two approaches to the issue of Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic.

In the first instance he offers us a short essay on the wider context of phenomenon of the pandemic. He discusses the underlying factors which lead to a relatively localised medical outbreak becoming an international challenge and experience. He links the fact that pandemics in modern times are very strongly related to our very open and inter-connected world. However, he does also suggest that the bubonic plague in its original onslaught on Western Europe, when it killed possibly half of the population, was spread by marauding, and very mobile, Mongol warriors; and equally that cholera only became a global killer in the early 19th Century when the British army encountered it in North East India. In other words, the pattern of modern times had been anticipated by previous experiences. What is being argued is that there is a relationship between groups of people, such as the military or traders, being dispatched to unfamiliar settings, for which their physiological metabolisms are not prepared. It is this vulnerability that leads to the spread of local diseases to unfamiliar settings.

He does make comparisons between the present experience and the past. On the one hand he emphasises that Pepys’ description of London in 1665 has many of the characteristics of our own experience with coronavirus. Yet he also comments on the fact that the international death rate in the 1918-20 flu pandemic amounted to 50 million and yet people continued to live without restraint, as compared with the present reactions with one million deaths. The effect of the media in revealing the modern situation may well explain the difference, because the press reports just after the Great War were ‘very restrained in their coverage’.

The greater substance of this book is a very careful survey of over twenty different pandemics which have affected the world from the Athenian period to the present-day AIDS, Ebola and Coronavirus. Each has well-chosen documentary extracts, supported by interpretative commentary.

Together the introductory essay and the extensive exemplification can give us a very good perspective on how our present-day pandemic compares with previous experience, giving us sufficient analysis to be able to guide future preparation for further and inevitable pandemics.