Epidemics and Plagues in History

Oct. 7
Disease or Epidemic or Plague? That depends.

Not every disease is an epidemic, and there are no clear guidelines for what transforms a disease into an epidemic. To confuse matters further, not every epidemic is a disease. Despite the variability in these terms, humans have reacted in some consistent ways when they confronted with an epidemic.

October 14:
Ancient Plagues

This week we will look at two important plagues assaulted ancient Mediterranean civilizations: the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE and Plague of Justinian between 541–549 CE (often called the first pandemic). We can see in these very early accounts rhumb lines that will continue to orient later efforts to describe and explain epidemics.

October 21:
The Black Death (facts, figures, explanations)

The plague erupted in 1347 and raged across Europe over the next few years, killing more than 30% of Europe’s population. After the initial pandemic, plague remained endemic throughout Europe for the next 300 years, erupting seasonally in cities across the continent. This week we will try to get a better sense of the scope of the pandemic. We will also look at the ways contemporary observers explained the disease—its origins, symptoms, and spread, as well as preventions and cures.

October 28:
The Black Death (art, literature, consequences)

The plague had a profound effect on European society and culture well beyond the simple numbers of dead. Art and literature both reflected the anxieties and fears felt by people in late medieval and early modern society. Cities and kingdoms introduced new laws in response to the plague, not only to control the spread of the disease but also to limit the ways laborers could benefit from their newly empowered position. We can even see the development of ideas about public health emerging in response to the crises.

November 4:
The French Disease

In 1495 an unknown disease appeared in the French troops besieging Naples, quickly spread up the Italian peninsula, and through Europe. While it didn’t seem to kill people as quickly as the plague, it nonetheless terrified people across the continent. Within months rulers, physicians, theologians, astrologers, and opportunists were offering explanations that seemed eerily similar in logic and structure to those offered for the plague. The interesting difference in this case was the incredible specificity of their explanations. This week we will look at the early, virulent years of the French Disease.

November 11:
Modern Epidemics, Yellow Fever and Typhoid Fever

Yellow fever and Typhoid fever offer an opportunity to see how traditional ideas about contagion and disease continued to shape ideas about epidemics. They also let us see how ideas about public health that were developing in the 14th century continued to pose real challenges in the early 20th. Part of the story is, of course, the development of germ theory, but much of the story remains beyond the narrow confines of medicine. We will look at both the changing (or not) medical explanations as well as the inescapable social factors such as naming the disease, identifying origins, ethical dilemmas that pit individual liberties against possible collective safety.