Barbara Tuchman's Descriptive History: The Black Death

A Scrapbook of Styles

Tuchman - Black Death
This grim emblem of the Black Death sits in the graveyard outside Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Manuel Velasco/Getty Images)

"I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end," Barbara Tuchman once said. "This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research." The recipient of many awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, Tuchman firmly believed that in writing history and biography, "the object is--or should be--to hold the reader's attention."

In these two paragraphs from A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), Tuchman vividly describes the terrifying symptoms of the plague that came to be known as the Black Death. Notice how Tuchman artfully incorporates footnoted quotations into her informative text.

The Black Death

From A Distant Mirror*, by Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)

1 In October 1347, two months after the fall of Calais, Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars. The ships had come from the Black Sea port of Caffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea, where the Genoese maintained a trading post. The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms.

As the disease spread, other symptoms of continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of the swellings or buboes. These victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. In both types everything that issued from the body--breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blood-blackened excrement--smelled foul.

Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end "death is seen seated on the face."(1)

2 The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person "could infect the whole world."(2) The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

(1) Anna M. Campbell, The Black Death and Men of Learning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), 80.

(2) Francis Aidan Gasquet, The Black Death of 1348 and 1349, 2nd ed. (London, 1908), 41.

Selected Works by Barbara Tuchman

  • The Guns of August (1962)
  • The Proud Tower (1966)
  • Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-45 (1971)
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
  • Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981)
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

* Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. It is currently available in a paperback edition published by Random House.