From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages

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 From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages
Second Edition

By John Aberth

Routledge, 2010

Publisher’s Description: The later Middle Ages was a period of unparalleled chaos and misery -in the form of war, famine, plague, and death. At times it must have seemed like the end of the world was truly at hand. And yet, as John Aberth reveals in this lively work, late medieval Europeans’ cultural assumptions uniquely equipped them to face up postively to the huge problems that they faced.

Relying on rich literary, historical and material sources, the book brings this period and its beliefs and attitudes vividly to life. Taking his themes from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, John Aberth describes how the lives of ordinary people were transformed by a series of crises, including the Great Famine, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Yet he also shows how prayers, chronicles, poetry, and especially commemorative art reveal an optimistic people, whose belief in the apocalypse somehow gave them the ability to transcend the woes they faced on this earth.

This second edition is brought fully up to date with recent scholarship, and the scope of the book is broadened to include many more examples from mainland Europe. The new edition features fully revised sections on famine, war, and plague, as well as a new epitaph. The book draws some bold new conclusions and raises important questions, which will be fascinating reading for all students and general readers with an interest in medieval history.

Review by Medievalists.net: The book covers a lot of ground – the Black Death, Hundred Years War, the Great Famine and other calamities that hit western Europe in the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. The final section, on Death, offers good insights into what medieval people thought about dying and their final resting places. Readers new to the Middle Ages will find this book a quick and interesting read, but medieval historians wont find much that is new here, or is covered more indepth in other books.

Review by Kevin Hughes in Church History: “Aberth writes in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, both in his lively, readable style aimed at the nonspecialist and in his antiheroic, almost romantic portrayal of late medieval miseries. Like its predecessor, the book is bound to dissatisfy the medievalist in its generalizations, and it attributes too much novelty to the fourteenth-century conditions of famine, war, plague, and death.” Click here to read the full review.

Review by Edson Piedmont in Choice Reviews: “He asserts that there is no link between hunger and disease, citing a high death rate among the well-fed monks of Canterbury and the secular nobility. Here, as elsewhere, the evidence sounds a little thin; but an excellent bibliographical essay will send students to the source materials to explore the controversy for themselves.” Click here to read the full review.

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Sharan Newman