Monday, August 31, 2009

The Foreign Origin of Plagues

Posted by Darin Hayton on 08/31 at 10:09 PM

Donald G. McNeil, Jr.’s most recent essay in the NY Times reminds us how important it is for people experiencing a disease to locate its origins in some distant land. At the same time, and perhaps unintentionally, his essay points to how important it is for historians to follow the route of transmission back to the source.

As he points out, the Jews were often blamed during the Black Death pandemics. But they were not the original source of the disease. At least according to Gabriele de’ Mussis, one of the earliest and most quoted sources for the arrival of the plague in Europe, the source of the scourge was the Tartar army that besieged Caffa, a Genoese trading city on the Black Sea. In what has to be one of the earliest examples of germ warfare, as the Tartar army was devastated by a horrific disease, they decided to launch the infected corpses into the city of Caffa. The Genoese traders, now infected, returned to Italy and spread the disease. Despite de’ Mussis’s authoritative account, he seems not to have left Piacenza immediately before or during the initial plague epidemic.

By the time de’ Mussis wrote his account, placing the blame on some distant foreign people had become formulaic. In his account of the plague that robbed Athens of its most famous stateman, Pericles, Thucydides claims that

The disease began, it is said, in Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and then descended into Egypt and Libya and spread over the greater part of the King’s territory. Then it fell suddenly upon the city of Athens ….

A millennium later, Procopius described the source of Justinian’s Plague in similar terms, locating its source in Egypt before it spread across to Palestine and finally attacked the citizens of Byzantium.

Other epidemics too were traced back to their distant, foreign sources. The French Disease, the Great Pox, the Neapolitan Disease, the Columbian Exchange or the many other terms used to name the venereal disease epidemic that spread through Europe in 1496 all reveal this profound need to identify the disease’s origins in some competing population. The German humanist Joseph Grünpeck, who wrote the earliest vernacular tract on the epidemic, called it the French Disease because it was first noticed in the French army besieging Naples. He also had a complicated astrological argument to account for why it first attacked the French, later spread through the Italians and finally infected the Germans (that the French and Germans were at war surely had nothing to do with his explanation). The French, however, called it the Neapolitan Disease, claiming their army had been infected by Neapolitan prostitutes. Later historians and medical humanists claimed the disease had been imported from the New World when sailors had returned from their expeditions in South America (hence the term “Columbian Exchange”).

Similar stories can be told about efforts to find the origins of Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793, or typhoid in 1910s New York, or the Spanish Flu in 1918, or AIDS/HIV in the 1980s, or …. The point is that such efforts seem to accompany any major epidemic.

Quite apart from these contemporary efforts to locate the origins of diseases in distant countries, which fulfills a number of social and psychological needs for people experiencing the epidemic and trying to understand it, historians seem to be equally motivated to trace the contours of transmission back to the wellspring. Every new book on the medieval plague includes detailed descriptions of how the plague started amongst the Tartars and was then brought to Europe by the Genoese sailors.1 McNeil’s article includes a map showing the routes of the spreading epidemic. This historiographic impetus to find the source of a particular epidemic must be fulfilling some need. At a basic level, such efforts reinforce contemporary accounts about the foreign origin of the epidemic du jour. They also continue to reinforce contemporary notions of innocence and superiority. Such efforts by historians to trace the origins of epidemics become self-fulfilling prophecies: the more we can show that historical plagues descended on particular undeserving populations, the more we can expect the pattern to continue. We become like the citizens of Periclean Athens, wrongly infected by some foreign invader.2


1A new book appears about every other year despite very little new evidence: John Kelley’s The Great Mortality, replete with highly fictionalized dialog between plague victims, appeared in 2005; in 2008 John Hatcher’s The Black Death; both joined a long list of titles that had already been sold off on remainder shelves. Similar remarks could be made about other books on epidemics, including Typhoid Mary, Yellow Fever, etc.

2For an analysis for how much history and historiography affects contemporary studies of disease, see Samuel Cohn, Jr. “The Black Death: End of a Paradigm,” AHR 107(2002): 703–38.

Tags: There are no tags for this entry.