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Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin W. Sherman, should have been a useful and fascinating book of popular history, as well. Disease has had a powerful effect on human history.
The barbarians that entered the Roman Empire during the third, fourth and fifth centuries, for instance, encountered large areas of untilled farmland and more than a few unoccupied or seriously underoccupied cities.
Why? Because terrible plagues had depopulated large areas, as people fled disease-ridden cities, and then the hinterland that had supplied these cities also suffered sharp drops in population.
While no one cause toppled the Western Roman Empire, it's worth remembering what an important role disease played then. It may have been smallpox that first shattered Roman life; because of global cooling at the time, crops had already been weakened and a series of plagues encountered a population already weakened by hunger and climate.
Diseases matter. They sweep across national borders and undo the plans of great empires.
They also set in motion great social changes. It is worth pointing out that the Renaissance corresponded roughly – perhaps too roughly for significance – with the Black Death.
The idea is that the Black Death caused social disruption by creating a labor shortage, which greatly increased the power and freedom of workers. Formerly tied to the land, many now were free to move away from their oppressive lords and enter city life, invigorating urban life.
So Boccaccio's Decameron, set in the plague years, may be a marker of the Renaissance in more ways than one: Not only is it a literary marker of the beginning of the Renaissance, but also its premise – a group of wealthy young people have fled the city to avoid the plague, and amuse each other by telling stories, 10 stories a day for 10 days – links the newly vigorous literature quite explicitly with the plague years.
So I was set to enjoy Sherman's book, to see how he treated each disease and traced the influence of the disease on cultures, governments and individual lives.
Instead, I ran into serious problems of reliability.
Already disappointed by the sketchiness and erratic nature of the narrative in its discussion of porphyria and hemophilia in the royal families of Europe, I was absolutely disgusted by the treatment of the Irish potato blight.
The writing was even more disorganized and haphazard than in the previous chapter. Mentions of landlord-tenant relationships were scattered across the narrative in nearly random order, and without any attempt at depth.
Sherman couldn't make up his mind whether, at any given moment, he was telling us about how the biology of the disease worked, how the disease affected Irish agriculture, how Ireland was already precariously poised on the brink of famine before the blight ever showed up, and how emigrants from Ireland were treated when they reached England, Canada or the United States.
The tone of outrage was the one constant, but without nuance or any serious attempt at understanding what people did or did not know.
Then there were absurd inaccuracies. Sherman actually says, without irony, "Only about one-fifth of the migrants survived the trip across the Atlantic because of their poor health, the fact that it took weeks to months to cross, and no food was provided on board ship" (p. 28).
I tried to ignore the word "migrants" – few people really understand the difference between "migrant," "emigrant" and "immigrant," and it doesn't necessarily mean the author is careless.
(To whom it may concern: A "migrant" is a person who regularly moves between one place and another, or among many places, usually in a regular pattern that crosses borders; "immigrant" is someone coming into a country from outside; "emigrant" is someone leaving a country.
(Thus the Irish were "emigrants" when you think of them leaving their homeland to escape the famine and poverty, but the same people became "immigrants" when they entered the United States or Canada in large numbers. What they definitely were not was "migrants.")
What matters here is the ludicrous statement that only one-fifth of the Irish emigrants survived the voyage. Even slave ships did better than that. Other, more reliable sources have the opposite proportion: One-fifth died, with higher losses among children.
Those numbers are dreadful enough. But if the death rate had been 80 percent, nobody would have boarded the ships. There is a limit to human desperation – survival rates were better than that in Ireland itself.
The chapter is also damaged by sweeping generalizations that link unlinkable causes. Widespread prejudice in England against the Irish may have kept some from feeling any responsibility to deal with starvation in Ireland – which had already been a problem before the potato famine – but it is absurd to link it to Malthusian ideas. The anti-Irish prejudice and Malthusian theories were generally held by groups whose membership did not overlap.
Moreover, the failure of the English to provide relief was primarily a problem of culture. Governments were not seen as having a responsibility to give aid – or, rather, that responsibility was only gradually coming to be recognized.
Also, there were well-known effects of government aid that have since been largely forgotten: Government aid can destroy markets. During a time of famine, food prices soar – it's a way of allocating scarce resources to those who are willing to pay more for it.
The trouble is that this gives a preference to the rich, and the consequences to the poor can be fatal. However, when governments, or charities, intervene to relieve hunger, they can inadvertently destroy the market for locally grown food. By giving away or seriously underpricing food, they can make it uneconomical for farmers to bring food to market or grow it in the first place.
Also, with the price so low it becomes uneconomical to transport food over long distances. When the aid stops, old channels of food distribution may be gone.
To provide aid without destroying markets requires a delicate balance – one beyond the reach of sophisticated systems available today, and certainly beyond the reach of the English government then.
Add to this the fact that aid channels simply did not exist and had to be set up on the fly, and you get a famine that persisted even after the decision to help had been made.
The high moral dudgeon of the book, therefore, seemed to me to be misapplied. This was the history-book equivalent of yellow-journalism, in which villains are picked without any attempt to explain or understand motives of the miscreants.
Add to this the sort of shotgun – nay, machine-gun – method of choosing villains, and the result was inaccurate and absurdly judgmental "yellow history."
There are other absurdities that seemed to result from the author's ignorance. There is reference to the attempt to send corn to the starving Irish. In England, though, "corn" means "edible grain," and what we Americans call "corn" is generally called "maize." Thus in England the "corn laws" referred to wheat and rye, which can be made into bread....continued on page 3