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Book Review


McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples (New York: Doubleday, 1976). 369 pp, $10.17.

     In the early days of the historical profession, scholars focused on the actions of "great men" to find explanations for historical change. In the mid-20th century, the researchers' gaze shifted to the everyday lives of "typical" people in societies. However, despite this shift, the focus remained on human activity and agency. Theories that gave primacy to events outside of human control were derided as both simplistic and inadequate. However, as we have come to see our world as controlled by long-term, systematic currents, this viewpoint has slowly changed. It was in this changing scholarly environment that William McNeill published Plagues and Peoples. The goal of the author was to write a text that would centralize the importance of disease as a primary shaper of history. (5) While epidemic outbreaks have traditionally been considered to be unfortunate stumbling blocks in the linear progression of history, McNeill proposes that we must place the transmission of illness at the core of historical discourse. 1
     The book is organized into six chapters. The first two examine the disease environment of early humans and the changes that the development of agriculture and human expansion brought to that environment. McNeill argues that disease and human populations had reached equilibrium before the Neolithic Revolution. (33) Agriculture brought many changes, including a shift to a sedentary lifestyle and larger communities. These changes fostered crowd diseases. Combined with this was closer contact with domesticated herd animals, an environment that encouraged the more rapid evolution of disease organisms for both humans and their animal servants. The author continues by describing the expansion of disease pools from 500 BCE to 1200 CE. McNeill attributes both the decline of the Han and Roman empires as well as the development of Christianity to the convergence of distinct disease regions through the actions of increased trade, primarily over the Silk Roads but also through sea-borne networks. (119) The reaction of human populations in distinct disease pools to the introduction of new infections was similar to unleashing a virus on a community with no resistance only on a much larger scale; devastation was widespread and almost complete. By 1200, the human and disease populations once again reached equilibrium, with formerly epidemic diseases becoming endemic and often only affecting the youngest members of society. But this equilibrium was disturbed again with the rise of the Mongols. Renewed trade networks once again spread disease, but this time one in particular—the Black Death—would cause the most massive depopulation experienced by the world before the two hemispheres were brought into contact in the 15th century. McNeill argues that the spread of the Black Death was facilitated by the Mongol polity and had profound repercussions in both Asia and Europe. (150) 2
     The impact of the arrival of the Old World disease portmanteau on indigenous populations in the New World was even more dramatic. The migration from the Old World to the New left, after several centuries, the societies of the Americas with a reduced capacity to resist certain infections. Additionally, the lack of large domesticated herd animals precluded the development of local crowd diseases. (202) The result was severe depopulation that did not reverse until the mid-17th century. Finally, McNeill ends with a rather pedestrian chapter on Western developments in the late modern period that altered the possibilities for disease organisms and ushered in an era with few epidemics that could fundamentally change the course of history. 3
     Plagues and Peoples is best described as a work of speculative and experimental history. Many of the surprising and crucial tenets of McNeill's text are unsupported by detailed historical citations. For instance, the author argues that expansion into southern China could only be completed after settlers had adapted to the disease environment. (137) But the sources for this assertion are thin, and only one direct quotation is used. Likewise, his assertion that the collapse of the Mongol Empire was due to plague is not unreasonable, but he provides no data to support it. (193) The book also suffers from a large dose of Eurocentrism. The vast majority of information and sources are of European origin. Indeed, the book follows the familiar pattern of humans spreading from Africa, forming Neolithic communities, creating the Greek and Roman Empires, falling into the Dark Ages, flowering into the Age of Exploration (and becoming disease vectors), and finally triumphing over nature through science. The notable exception to this pattern is a relatively thorough examination of China. Part of this can be explained by the availability of sources and McNeill's own training, but other examples can be found. For instance, McNeill argues that the Muslim world took a fatalistic view of the plague, believing it to be God's will. (188) He portrays the European reaction as much more dynamic. However, just pages before, he describes the fatalistic outlook of European societies. (185) McNeill also argues that Asian societies, once medical traditions were set, refused to change. (237) Disregarding the resistance of the European medical tradition to change, the footnote for this comment reveals that McNeill actually doesn't have any evidence and instead suggests more research. (346) A final example is the author's assertion that intensified trade networks in the Indian Ocean acted as disease vectors. (230) This view is contested by other scholars who argue that the Indian Ocean supported a vibrant trade well before European arrival. Even after Europeans attempted to monopolize the network the majority of the trade remained under the control of indigenous populations. Africa is barely discussed after the opening chapters. A more thorough attempt at trying to understand the sub-Saharan disease environment and its interaction with other disease pools would have been helpful. 4
     The book also shows its age. McNeill uses the supposed Aryan invasion of India to support some of his early arguments regarding caste and disease. (73) The majority of scholars now accept the New World origin of syphilis, which McNeill argues against. (219) Japanese rice cultivation has also been pushed back several centuries, scuttling McNeill's assertion that Japanese populations remained small due to a lack of intensive agriculture.(139) It would seem that a new edition is called for. 5
      However, McNeill does make some interesting points. Perhaps the most fascinating line of thought is that humans are not only similar to a disease on the Earth, but that civilization in general acts as a "macroparasite" on societies. Just like a disease, hierarchical power structures sap energy from the producing classes. However, just as an endemic disease can protect a society from epidemic outbreaks, so too can governments and militaries protect producing classes from the more destructive and catastrophic impact of raiders and competing states. McNeill pushes this idea further by arguing that only when the microparasitic environment (disease) was in equilibrium with the macroparasitic environment could these societies survive and thrive. (119) When one or the other put too much stress on the majority of the productive population, collapse was inevitable. Thus, in both Han China and imperial Rome, the demands of the state became too much to bear when disease spread. McNeill argues that this led not only to the dissolution of these empires but to the spread of both Buddhism and Christianity, religions with a clear focus on the hereafter and the incomprehensibility of the physical world. (136) While this statement is not well supported, it is an intriguing idea. McNeill, along with Alfred Crosby in The Columbian Exchange, also ushered in a new explanation for the conquest of the Americas that is now considered paradigmatic. Together, these works were the first to propose to a wide audience that European conquest was greatly facilitated by their disease environment and the virulent portmanteau that traveled with them. In this respect, McNeill foreshadowed work by Crosby in his work Ecological Imperialism, Diamond, and others. 6
     It is perhaps this facet of the text that deserves the most attention today. No doubt there has been considerable work examining disease in many areas of the world that would undermine McNeill's details. However, without this initial text, who can say how long or in what shape such research would have occurred. Plagues and Peoples is dated, speculative, and Eurocentric, but it helped open the door to a new way of doing history. 7
Aaron Whelchel
Washington State University

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