Review ID: CBB582920043

Review of "The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World" (2018)


Bruce M. S. Campbell has undergone a fascinating transition over the course of his long career. Originally a specialist in the economic and agricultural history of Norfolk, England, he has now become, in his latest series of articles, an interdisciplinary, globe-trotting environmental historian, seeking to elucidate “nature as historical protagonist” in the manifold crises that beset the later Middle Ages. This book, which is based on the Ellen MacArthur Lectures that Campbell delivered at the University of Cambridge in 2013, represents the culmination of this transformation.There is much to applaud and admire in The Great Transition. The figures alone (there are seventy-eight of them) testify to Campbell’s thorough grounding in the scientific data and historical evidence that form the backbone of his argument. This is that climate shaped the trajectory of late medieval society’s transition to a new demographic, economic, and social order by the end of the Middle Ages, but only in concert with other “core components” that included biology and microbes (chief among them being plague), as well as humans and their societies, and other ecosystems (22, Figure 1.2). This “dynamic socio-ecological system” renders irrelevant the traditional binary conception of “endogenous” factors (i.e., those internal to the human condition) contrasted with “exogenous,” or external, agents chiefly having to do with the environment, such as disease or the weather.

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