In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Monte Lupo StorySimon Schama

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Faith, Reason and the Plague 
by Carlo Cipolla.
Harvester, 112 pp., £7.50, November 1980, 0 85527 506 5
Show More
Show More

Professor Cipolla’s new book puts one in mind of a Florentine espresso: minuscule in size; briefly stimulating in effect; and extortionate in price. At £7.50 for 85 pages of text his readers will be shelling out eight pence a page, a tariff which, I couldn’t help but calculate, would have put my own first book in the shops for around £65 a copy. Not for nothing, then, is he renowned as the most economical of economic historians, specialising in small books on big subjects – literacy, population, technology and the like. Many of these have brilliantly succeeded in dealing with complex historical problems within the space of a nutshell. In this case, however, the shell is altogether more imposing than the nut.

The book comes expansively inflated with puffery in two styles: the High (or Reverential) Puff and the Low (or Fastidious) Puff. The High Puff asks us to believe that the book ‘is of immense historical importance’ as ‘it presents a picture of the real life of ordinary people who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of pre-industrial Europe ... on whose shoulders the high civilisations of the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Enlightenment were built.’ In other words, without taking into account the plague victims of a Tuscan hill village in 1630-1 – or by extension, anything that ever happened to anyone at any time between 1400 and 1800 – our contemplation of Michelangelo, Bernini and Voltaire is callow and impoverished. The Low Puff refers more tactfully to ‘spare’ prose and ‘deft’ strokes, evoking the warbling of the piccolo rather than the swell of the Vox Humana.

I should in fairness add that for your £7.50 you get three appendices (one transcribed from an earlier work); a bibliography of 15 items, thoughtfully printed in very large type and stretching over two pages; lists of contents and figures taking a page apiece; and a good deal of while surface area all contributing to take the page-count into three figures. Professor Cipolla helps this along by interpolating between his more strictly historical observations strangely delphic utterances of the sort one usually associates with Christmas crackers: ‘loneliness is the price a man has to pay when in a position of power’; or, in more cybernetic vein: ‘there are people who because of their biomass, physical dignity or psychic energy easily assert their authority on others.’ Apart from ruminations on biomass deficiency, there are the obligatory frequency diagrams designed to translate the perfectly obvious into the statistically awesome, and illustrations which are verbally recapitulated in the text. But all the cladding and padding and wadding and stuffing can’t conceal that this is a very short book about a very small town over a very brief period in time. To be blunt, it is a footnote cranked up into a Cecil B. De Mille production.

Given the extreme simplicity of the episode recounted, even 85 pages seem a bit luxurious. Far from Professor Cipolla telescoping its details he has elongated them into a historical shaggy-dog story with a correspondingly inconclusive pay-off. Its outlines can be summarised semaphorically in the manner of those invaluable contents lists in 19th-century history books. Plague hits Tuscan village of five hundred souls in 1630; Florentine Health magistracy puts formidable Dominican in charge of quarantine; opposition from truculent inhabitants who resent their already rudimentary subsistence further confined by irksome restrictions on movement; resurgence of petty crime; mortality recedes with winter cold; monk departs; plague revives early 1631; mayor fails to enforce regulations, dies in harness; monk recalled as attempts to ban religious procession meet with angry resistance from local priest and populace; procession goes ahead; quarantine stockade at one of the city gates vandalised at night; outraged roving commissioner summons insomniac busybody who claims to have witnessed the misdeed but (it being night) fails to identify culprits; witness rather than vandals thrown in jail until story believed; culprits undiscovered, plague recedes again; monk departs again; commission concluded inconclusively; end of story.

Professor Cipolla fleshes out these bare bones with some striking characterisation, but much of it is of the kind sneered at by historians when they encounter it in historical novels. When unsupported by anything except the most circumstantial evidence, there is invariably a resort to the emphatic and the imperative: ‘While he rode at an early hour towards the castello, he must have been thinking about those Monte Lupans’; ‘he must have been inquisitive by nature’; ‘like so many talkative people ... Pandolfo must have felt pleasantly self-important.’ Similarly, when the action threatens to flag, Cipolla stokes it up again by imaginative use of dramatic hyperbole, generally of the Mills and Boon variety: ‘He had not slept at all during the night and now in less than 24 hours he had experienced the whole gamut of emotions ranging from excited curiosity to the heights of euphoria down to the depths of terror.’ Since this refers not to attendance at a witches’ sabbath or an auto-da-fé, but to the busybody’s nocturnal snooping, followed by his informing and subsequent cross-examination, the reader might be pardoned for thinking Professor Cipolla’s threshhold of excitement rather lower than average. At the very end of the tale the ghost of the immortal Edgar Lustgarten walks again (scripted by Monty Python): ‘Who broke down the stockade at Monte Lupo? Was Pandolfo lying when he swore he had not recognised the evil-doers? And what role was played by the carpenter? These are questions that must remain unanswered.’

If the devotee of history-as-thrills is not likely to find much in this book to set his spine tingling, can the scholar learn anything fresh? Given the immense literature on plague and its social impact (to which Professor Cipolla has made distinguished contributions, but on which the massive volumes of Jean Biraben might be thought to have said the last word), it is hard to see that the Monte Lupo story is much more than a minor if picturesque addition to our knowledge. It comes as no surprise to discover an individual cleric like the Dominican Father Dragoni transcending the disputes of Church and State over the stringency and propriety of prophylactic regulations, and enforcing the wishes of the latter rather than the former. Humanist or even monastic clergy throughout plague-stricken Europe often gave their Christian pastoral duties a higher priority than they gave to traditional rites, usages and customs. One important aspect of the Counter-Reformation Church was precisely this kind of attack on popular ceremony. Nor is it startling to find no positive correlation between religious processions and plague mortality. Ever since Creighton’s classic history it has been supposed that by far the most common (albeit not exclusive) agents of transmission were, not other people, but the fleas of Rattus rattus.

Carping aside, the most depressing aspect of this offering is what it implies about the pigmification of historical scale. The time has long since passed when historians dealt exclusively with the grand scenarios of power: the life and death of empires and nation states; their wars and revolutions, diplomacy and business. It was a salutary corrective to turn instead to the history of the unsung masses, and from the most recalcitrant and ostensibly ephemeral sources, ingenious and gifted historians such as Richard Cobb, Olwen Hufton and E.P. Thompson have produced masterpieces of historical reconstruction in which the lives of the obscure and the downtrodden are given the front of the stage. There was, and is, a serious purpose in viewing élite culture and its politics from the perspective of the common individual struggling to survive. But this is not the same thing as assuming that all historical events have an equivalent call on the historian’s attention, or that any scrap of evidence, however inconsequential, which is capable of being written up with a modicum of imagination and literary competence demands rescue from oblivion. On the contrary, much of it could do with being sent straight back there. The indiscriminate celebration of the humdrum threatens to dissolve history into a random aggregate of disconnected episodes, anecdotally related. And the result of such a process is not merely the substitution of a mosaic comprised of myriad, imperfectly fitting chips of the past for a possibly over-coherent picture of Great Events, but an invitation to study the individual fragments as though they each were miniaturised versions of the whole. This ‘microcosmic’ view – the absolute opposite of Febvre’s and Braudel’s equally unattainable ‘histoiretolate – is in effect a neo-pointilliste heresy of immense positivist vulgarity. Its premise must be that history is comprised of discrete actions and events, each as worthy of study as the next, since each contains within it some element of the universal. At the most banal level – Tolstoy’s preference for the cosmic significance of the ear of ripening wheat over the cosmic significance of Napoleon – this is necessarily true. But to conclude, for example, that a study of the distribution of Bolshevik posters in Plotsk is quite as important as a study of the Petrograd Soviet, is tantamount to a declaration of war on causal explanation: a relapse into egregious relativism.

It is time, perhaps, to reinstate the significance of significance. Or is it too quaint to insist that the historian’s work involves explanation and argument, and that this necessarily entails an evaluation of evidence? And that only when such evaluation, comparison, selection, is undertaken can evidence be brought to bear on a predefined problem or a preconceived hypothesis? Has there been such a loss of nerve among historians that they now swallow uncritically the social anthropologist’s dictum that to describe is to explain? For ‘thick description’ can mean thin understanding, if what is being thickly described has lost its anchorage in the larget measures of time and space.

The signs of a creeping Montaillou syndrome are ominous. The local, the anecdotal, the parochial, the gossipy and the intimate, threaten to tyrannise historical fashion quite as thoroughly as the public, the national and the political once did. As the demand for ‘readable’ history becomes a hunt for the scraps and shards, the rags and bones of evidence, from which a good yarn might be knocked together, the historian is in danger of becoming a kind of beachcomber among the casually washed-up detritus of the past. If this goes further we shall revert to what we were before Thucydides had grander ideas: bardic tellers of tales, ministering to a culture terrified by the fragility of the contemporary, and seeking in chronicle an inverted form of augury. Or, less apocalyptically, we may end up as minor entertainers in light prose. Should that happen, the High Puffer’s boast that it ‘more history books were written like this they would drive novels off the market’ will be put to the test. And on the evidence of this kind of tittle-tattle, it will be history, rather than the novel, which will meet with a rude comeuppance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.