Course: Epidemics and Epistemologies in Pre-Modern Europe

HC 231H

Professor: Melissa Graboyes

This course examines disease epidemics, and ideas about disease, that circulated in Europe from roughly 1000 to 1450. In addition to reconstructing scientific and medical knowledge during the ancient and medieval period, we will also explore how disease is related to epistemology (how people understood and explained disease), nosology (how diseases were classified) and cosmology (how disease, ill health or general misfortune was explained within a society). Our major case study will be the Black Death of 1347 (bubonic plague,Yersinia pestis), which crossed Europe and killed up to 1/3 of the population. Through this devastating case of disease, we will learn about how the public understood and explained disease, how states responded, and how epidemics changed the role of government in protecting the public’s health.

The course will begin with a review of the disease environments of early civilizations and the impact of the agricultural revolution and animal domestication. From there, we will chart some of the changes occurring politically, socially and culturally during the middle ages (such as urbanization, mercantilism, and increased global contact) that laid the groundwork for new disease ecosystems. We will also discuss nascent public health structures, and explore how states responded to the presence of other ancient diseases such as leprosy, measles, smallpox, malaria, and cholera. Finally, as we consider the methods and sources of medical history, we will learn about new techniques for gathering historic disease data, including genetic sequencing and DNA analysis. From a historiographical perspective, we will delve into the evidence and debates around the demographic and epidemiological transitions, and the larger and longer impacts of the Black Death.

This class requires high level participation and great commitment on the part of students. Students are expected to arrive at class having read carefully and thought critically about the texts. In addition to formal written assignments, all students are required to make an oral presentation highlighting modern examples of themes discussed in the class. Readings are numerous and challenging, and include both primary and secondary sources from multiple disciplines. Our primary sources may include ancient medical texts; works of art such as paintings, music, and poetry; letters and diaries from those suffering from disease; and early epidemiological data including hospital records, doctors’ reports, and maps.