As William McNeil makes clear in the introduction of his Plagues and Peoples, his purpose is to examine a massive aspect of history he perceives as neglected. While he refers to various historians who have periodically addressed the impact of disease on various populations, he believes insufficient attention has been paid to the patterns and enormity of these events. Inspired by his own curiosity regarding the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and guided by accounts of how smallpox decimated the native population and left the Spaniards virtually unharmed, McNeil then goes on to express his ambition; namely, to document and investigate how infectious diseases have altered the course of history from ancient to modern times (23). As the author recounts, the evidence for this pattern is inescapable throughout all recorded human history, and he present his work to better comprehend the realities.

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If there is any historical question McNeil focuses upon, it is not so much how disease or plague create great damage to populations, but more how and why the factor of infection, or spread of disease, is so immense an element in history. This is an impact that cannot be overstated in McNeil’s view: “The history of civilized disease is one of step-by-step intensification of infection” (McNeil, 1996, 31). There is in fact a sense throughout the book that this potent process of humans perpetually carrying disease to others is a question demanding investigation, if only because the process has been both so consistent and so deadly. This relates to a main idea of the book, for a great deal of McNeil’s thinking relies on a concept of human beings as parasitical creatures themselves. Structured cultures are for him “macroparasites,” and cultures attain disease-equilibrium only when these populations are of a size sufficient to balance the microparasitical, or the actual diseases of the environments (McNeil 119). He also suggests the idea that the major world religions owe a great deal of their influence to how cultures react to and interpret disease. This then accords with the main idea of disease as being inextricably connected to the basic foundations of developing civilizations.

As McNeil explores the dimensions of his general subject, there is an interesting sense of how epidemics of disease have historically challenged whole cultures, and in ways usually disastrous for the culture. At the same time, he makes the important and plain point that the reductions in population created by disease actually offer opportunities to the nation that reacts with planning and thought to them, and which avoid the military or other interactions that bring new disease threats to the people. For example, he cites how the China of the 18th century, enjoying a long era of peace and minimal contact with the rest of the world, was then threatened by the need to sustain a vastly rising population. This in turn generated Chinese advances in agriculture, and commitments to farming land previously unused (McNeil 250). These concepts reinforce the initial impetus of the author; as noted, McNeil makes it clear that the study of European invasion of the Americas was his primary influence: “What got me started…was reading about Cortez and what happened to him and his men” (1996, 29). In essence, an unsolved mystery was McNeil’s greatest influence, which then led him to trace similar trajectories of disease in historic events. To the author’s credit, he pays equal attention to both ancient and more modern conditions and consequences of epidemics.

In terms of relating disease to the study of past empires, McNeil adds certain perspectives to cases of ancient epidemics that are valuable. In plain terms, he reinforces the effect of disease as instrumental in the gradual erosion of the Roman Empire. This is validated by other research, and the reader is then left with a component of the fall of Rome that is largely ignored in texts; namely, the same processes of conquest and rule that installed Roman power in various nations brought with them a powerful, destructive force in the shape of transplanted epidemics. McNeil discusses how the Cyprian and Antonine plagues devastated the population of Rome itself, and this is in part corroborated by a lack of records in these eras. What has been uncovered, however, is that an epidemic of measles alone in the third century C. E. killed approximately 5,000 Roman per day (Reff 48). History here typically focuses on the dissolution of Rome as occurring through the gradual accommodation of the conquering Barbarians, an accommodation essentially only forestalling what was actual conquest. With McNeil’s perspectives, an important agent is introduced, or given more credence, in that disease as decimating Rome was both a massive force and something of an inevitability in a civilization so consistently expansive.

On a personal level, I found much of Plagues and Peoples thought-provoking, as the author seeks to demonstrate the massive impact of a largely neglected study, and also draw connections between instances of plague and disease as reflecting the same patterns. I was impressed by how McNeil is careful to note military and economic factors in epidemics of the 20th and 19th centuries, introduced and spread through industrialization and warfare. Then, he proposes interesting ideas regarding the responses of these more modern societies to it. More compelling to me is McNeil’s exploration of the role of faith in his subject, and in virtually all cultures. If warfare inadvertently spread disease, he argues, religious missionaries and pilgrimages, particularly in the West to the East, seem to have embraced the idea of facing alien diseases as a test of faith, just as ancient cultures viewed plagues as visitations of God’s wrath (McNeil 243).

There is, unfortunately, a lack of authentic scholarship throughout the book. A great many of McNeil’s suppositions are rational and compelling, but there is only minimal support from valid sources and documentation. This is truly regrettable because the subject is genuinely important and fascinating. Ultimately, I came away from the book feeling frustrated. I was intrigued by the ideas and drawn into the logic constructed by McNeil, but I could not wholly accept his thinking because it is missing a necessary foundation of academic integrity. Had this been in place, McNeil’s Plagues and Peoples would be a very important work of modern sociology and history; as it is, it is an interesting and well-presented analysis without a proper foundation.

  • McNeil, W, H. “Patterns of Disease Emergence in History.” Emerging Viruses. Ed. Morse, S. S. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 29-36. Print.
  • McNeil, W. H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.
  • Reff, D. T. Plagues, Priests, and Demons: Sacred Narratives and the Rise of Christianity in the Old World and the New. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.