EPIDEMIC DISEASES OF THE MIDDLE AGES

12 May

Many  of the  afflictions  described  in medieval  texts  are  still common today,  but,  in popular  imagination, the most  feared  of all pestilential diseases, leprosy and bubonic  plague, still color our perceptions  of this era. Historians might argue that plague and leprosy should not be classi- fied as ‘‘medieval diseases.’’ Epidemics of bubonic plague continued  into the nineteenth  century and both plague and leprosy remained  as signifi- cant public health threats  in certain parts of the globe at the end of the twentieth  century.  On the other  hand,  it could also be argued  that  two of the most devastating  pandemics the world has ever experienced—the Plague of Justinian  and the Black Death—seem to provide an appropri- ate frame for the medical history of the Middle Ages.

When attempting to understand the impact  of AIDS,  the disease that emerged in the 1980s to become the great modern pandemic, histori- ans and physicians most often turned  to bubonic  plague and leprosy as the most significant historical models of devastating epidemic diseases. If we can indeed look into the Middle Ages as a ‘‘distant mirror,’’ we may be able to think more clearly about  the impact of catastrophic diseases on society and the human  psyche. Plague and leprosy stand out among the myriad  perils and  adversities  of the Middle  Ages, much  as AIDS emerged as the pestilence emblematic of the last decades of the twentieth century.  Many  aspects  of the  origin,  impact,  and  present  and  future threat  of AIDS are unclear,  just as there are many uncertainties about the historical meaning of leprosy and plague. However, it is not unreasonable to  hope  that  scientific knowledge  concerning  pathology and epidemiology,  as well as historical  research  illuminating  the social context  in which  particular diseases  loomed  so  large,  will eventually allow us to  ask  more  meaningful  questions  about  the  ways in which people assess and respond  to the threat  of catastrophic disease.

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