Paul Slack’s Plague: A Very Short Introduction

Book Citation: Paul Slack. (2012) Plague: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-958954-8. Pocket size paperback, 138 pages. $11.95 {#307 of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series}

Topic: The Plague

Time and Place: Primarily Europe from c. 540- c. 1910

Audience: General audience. Intended as an introduction to the topic for anyone with a college reading level.

Discussion:

A couple of months ago I asked a history of medicine discussion list to recommend a book surveying plague studies to provide a good overview of the field. No one had any suggestions for this monumental task. Little did any of us know that about that time, Paul Slack’s Plague: A Very Short Introduction was being published (on March 24, 2012 according to Amazon) almost simultaneously with that conversation. When I first saw this book advertised I thought how could such a small book (pocket-size or easily purse size) at only 138 pages be worth much. Almost out of desperation, I ordered it. I am so glad that I did. Slack’s Plague proves that a book does not have to be long or packed with data to provide a good introduction to such a long-lasting and complicated topic.

Covering the entire history of plague and looking for the presence or absence of trends over 1500 years sets this book apart from most books on plague. Naturally, the Black Death and its aftershocks dominate but he makes an effort to continually use examples from the Plague of Justinian and less commonly the Third pandemic. Although he clearly approaches the plague as a historical topic, he gives adequate space to the discussion of the science of causes and nature of the pandemics. I think his best chapter is on plague’s role in the development of public health. This is a book that I will reread and study for quite a while to come.

Narrative grade: A.
Slack, an emeritus professor of social history, writes with the elegance and confidence of a senior scholar introducing but also assessing a field he has intimately known as a teacher and researcher for his entire career. While acknowledging areas of debate, he writes in very clear and even bold statements without the litter of caveats for every possible exception.

Historical Content grade: A


Slack covers all of the primary historical questions using plenty of examples without being tempted to follow them off track. One area that could have received more attention is medical care, which is only mentioned in passing along with the black death experience or the public health chapter.  He writes with clear thesis statements and well supported arguments. As a topic introduction, this is not a book that will provide data or even data summaries. Primary sources are translated and specialist terminology is avoided.

Scientific Content grade: A-


Scientific content is presented at the right reading level and with a rational discussion of the debates. This book was written before the full sequencing of a Yersinia pestis from East Smithfield in London. Slack is firmly on the side of Yersinia pestis and its continuous history.  He does not attempt to cover plague as a biological weapon or the modern status of plague.

References and Usability grade: B

The note system is rather strange and doesn’t follow any system that I am familiar with. It has an extensive ‘further reading’ section rather than a bibliography.

Illustrations: B

Figures, maps and graphs were okay for the size of the book.