Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill is an extraordinary historical read consisting of humankind’s records and assumptions of disease throughout our known past. From the construction of early human migrations up until briefly mentioned cases of disease within the 20th century, the original book was published in 1975. The version I acquired, however, was a version printed with a revised preface discussing Ebola and Aids which was re-published in 1998.
McNeill starts off Plagues and Peoples introduction with a rather interesting backstory concerning the infamous historical kerfuffle between the Spaniards and the indigenous empires of the “New World”: those of the Inca and the Aztec.
The discussion is drawn immediately to how disease was a beneficial factor for the Old World invaders. He seems to put down the historical stereotype oftentimes read in more or less ignorant reports which claim that the Aztecs and Incan people were infatuated with the godlike Spaniards. Quote, “If Montezuma and his friends first thought the Spaniards were gods, experience soon showed otherwise.”
An underlying theme throughout the entire book, which if you ignore the appendix is just shy of 300 pages, is religion. As I read, the topic of religion seemed to rear its head within every one of the six main chapters of Plagues and Peoples. First off, McNeill claimed that the priests and preachers of the Aztec and Incan faiths saw their Gods as “on the Spaniards’ side” after horrific slaughtering through – you guessed it – disease. The religious indoctrination therefore led to a bit of a “giving up” in the already faltering empires.
From droughts in Mexican deserts to political unrest in Peru, the two major New World orders had seen better days even before the Spaniard explorers incarnated as Cortez and Pizzaro ever showed up. The fact that these native religions disappeared entirely and utterly make the question even more interesting: the villagers, even those very few percentiles that survived the onslaught, didn’t continue to remain loyal to the ritualistic deities of the past. That cultural pressure didn’t affect the Spaniards at all, either!
The “psychological implications of a disease that killed only Indians and left Spaniards [who were used to and basically immune to] unharmed” devastated the waning collection of indigenous peoples. Thus, the “virgin society” had crumbled to an infestation bearing the plagues of a literal different world. This impact, one created by disease, only added onto the stress already placed upon the barren shoulders of an evolving New World.
From here, Plagues and Peoples turns itself to briefly discussing The Black Death before beginning the first two chapters – which are completely dedicated to the early evolution of man and how our primitive migration spelled out doom for us all in a sense of disease.
Honestly, the book was fantastic up until the third chapter – when it became a bit of a nosebleed to finish. The third chapter, titled “Confluence of the Civilized Disease Pools of Eurasia”, discusses the influence of disease upon societies which existed between 500 BCE to 1200 CE. In an attempt to deeply explain and identify the core problems and exact definitions of bacterial diseases and the influence of trade, the center of the book (ranging from chapters three and four) became longwinded and somewhat repeated word salad in the form of paragraphs. Albeit difficult to get through, in a sense, these chapters are still completely full of useful information.
The end of the third chapter in Plagues and Peoples brings up the construct of faith again, thus forming a bit of an oasis in a desert of around 100 pages of dry reading; making an incredibly interesting thesis concerning the uprising of Christianity in Europe and Buddhism in Asia. In an era dominated by pestilence and plague, people turned to religions that gave comfort in living regardless of disaster or prosperity. Christianity eventually gained the institutional strength to overturn pagan faiths, and Buddhism used a similar historical method to revert Confucianism’s discipline. Part of the thesis seems to be flawed with an anti-religion vibe, but the overall concept of “turning towards something which seems as if it could help” really does leave an impact.
As the book nears modern time, the stories get shorter and shorter. In a book where an entire chapter is dedicated to the Mongol Empire and how they further spread disease throughout the height of their power, it seems rather cheap to turn the second-half of the book to two chapters of paragraph-long tales in quick succession.
The book, however, is a fascinating and even enlightening read on the aspect of disease. It truly does give a detailed thesis on how infectious diseases impacted and altered our history, creating a relevant story to introduce modern-like medicines to the next generation. In a world that has a media obsession with deadly diseases (which every year offering up a new obstacle to public health: Swine Flu, Ebola, and now the Zika virus), it seems as if this book should very well be on the top of a reading list for an entry level classroom environment.
Overall, it is in fact a brilliant and challenging approach to history, as the Washington Post put it. Although a little bit of a nosebleed at times, where it seemed as if a single chapter would never end and double taking information seemed irrelevant in the scheme of things, I read and took notes in all 295 pages (and briefly skimmed through the 70-page appendix) in a little over a day.
Plagues and Peoples is definitely worth the read. You can click here to pick up a copy, if you’re interested. Also, the book actually played a bit of a role in helping me pick the topic for episode two of my podcast, The Kaminski Code. It’s already recorded and should be up within the next few days; so I’ll leave a link here when it’s up!