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3 - Plagues and Medicine

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2017

Leszek Borysiewicz
University of Cambridge
Jonathan L. Heeney
University of Cambridge
Sven Friedemann
University of Bristol
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Throughout history many plagues have struck mankind. For nearly as long, mankind has endeavoured to fight the diseases underlying plagues. This chapter highlights the importance of integrating academic disciplines to sustain the considerable progress that we have made in the control of infectious diseases. It is also a personal reflection, which comes with a health warning. Out of necessity it is selective and not comprehensive.

Scientific discoveries have changed the field of infectious diseases rapidly. New technologies constantly impact on the approaches that can be brought to bear on the problem. However, the study of the prevention of infectious diseases is not just about the biology underlying disease, but also about understanding society and individual behaviour. Ultimately, this is the conclusion I wish to deliver: the issues raised by our attempts to prevent plagues affect every member of society, not just the few fascinated by pathogens or our response to them.

Plagues’ Impact on Society

Most appropriately, the start of my analysis is 1347 and The Plague, known as the Black Death, that hit Europe. The historical details of The Plague are discussed in the preceding chapter ‘Plagues and History’ by Mary and Christopher Dobson. However, the importance of The Plague in Europe was that it was the first well-documented large-scale population pandemic. It affected everybody and spread to all parts of Europe, but leaving certain geographical pockets less affected than others.

To examine how to prevent the spread and impact of pathogens, it is important to consider the impact of The Plague on medieval society. Pieter Bruegel in his masterpiece The triumph of death (c.1562) depicts every conceivable grisly way of ending your life in medieval times. From scaffolds to being tortured on the wheel, a variety of ways of being decapitated or having other gruesome injuries inflicted on you are all there. But if this reflects the mind of medieval man, right in the centre is The Plague, with the characteristic plague cart filled with bodies.

So here is a perception of how plague affects individuals and in particular medieval man. Despite the fact that life was short and very hard by today's standards, the plague was perceived as a terrifying terminal event.

How did medieval man respond to this fearsome event? There were three possible options:

The first instinct, if you could afford it and the feudal system allowed it, was to run.

Plagues , pp. 66 - 91
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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