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Authors: John Aberth

Tags: #ISBN 9780742557055 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 9781442207967 (electronic), #Rowman & Littlefield, #History

Plagues in World History

BOOK: Plagues in World History
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Plagues in World History

Exploring World History

Series Editors

John McNeill, Georgetown University

Jerry Bentley, University of Hawai‘i

As the world grows ever more closely linked, students and general readers alike are appreciating the need to become internationally aware. World history offers the crucial connection to understanding past global links and how they influence the present. The series will expand that awareness by offering clear, concise supplemental texts for the undergraduate classroom as well as trade books that advance world history scholarship.

The series will be open to books taking a thematic approach—exploring commodities such as sugar, cotton, and petroleum; technologies; diseases and the like; or regional—for example, Islam in Southeast Asia or east Africa, the Indian Ocean, or the Ottoman Empire. The series sees regions not simply as fixed geographical entities but also as evolving spatial frameworks that have reflected and shaped the movement of people, ideas, goods, capital, institutions, and information. Thus, regional books would move beyond traditional borders to consider the flows that have characterized the global system.

Edited by two of the leading historians in the field, this series will work to syn-thesize world history for students, engage general readers, and expand the boundaries for scholars.

Plagues in World History

by John Aberth

Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History by Alan L. Karras

The First World War: A Concise Global History by William Kelleher Storey

Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World

by Richard P. Tucker

Plagues in World History

John Aberth


Lanham • Boulder • New York • Toronto • Plymouth, UK

Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706

Estover Road, Plymouth PL6 7PY, United Kingdom Copyright © 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Aberth, John, 1963–Plagues in world history / John Aberth.

p. cm. — (Exploring world history)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-74255705-5 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-44220796-7 (electronic) 1. Epidemics—History. 2. Communicable diseases—History. I. Title.

RA649.A24 2011



™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

Printed in the United States of America






Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6
















About the Author





Why study disease? It’s not a very pleasant subject to contemplate. The pages of its history are ful of suffering and death. Its comings and goings often seem arbitrary and simply inexplicable, the bane of most historians. There is no happy ending.

And yet . . . there is something about plagues that fascinates. For those with morbid minds, the spectacle of mass death is mesmerizing in its capacity to inspire fear, panic, viciousness, and cruelty. But for those of us who hold out some hope for humanity, there is also to be found—even in a time of plague—kindness, generosity, courage, and heroism. Truly, an epidemic tempers a society, subjecting it to trials either to which it must succumb or over which it must triumph. There is no middle ground with plague. It is the litmus test of civilizations.

Obviously, for our purposes, plagues and disease will be used interchangeably.

Even though “plague” does refer to a specific disease,1 which will be a main focus of this book, the origins of the term can be traced back to the Latin word
, meaning a “blow” or “wound.”2 While in the classical context of the Latin language plague might be associated with a misfortune or disaster of some kind, it was not necessarily associated with disease; this only seems to have emerged during the late Roman Empire, when the Church issued a definitive Latin “Vulgate”

edition of the Old and New Testaments, largely through the labors of St. Jerome, by 405 C.E. In this new context, plague naturally came to mean a “blow” from on high, such as when the Hebrew God struck down every firstborn male in Egypt, as recounted in the Book of Exodus. But this idea, if not the term, for plague was a common inheritance from the ancients, all of whom viewed disease as naturally emanating from the gods. Like the Hebrews, the Greeks could 1

2 y Introduction

conceive of disease as a punishment or test for humans, with perhaps the most famous example being Apollo using his silver bow to rain down plague upon the Greeks, after Agamemnon had insulted his priest, Chryses, in the opening pages of Homer’s epic poem
The Iliad
. But in older Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, the reasons for the gods sending down disease could also be rather mysterious and unfathomable.

The history of disease, of course, is very old. It goes right back to the very beginnings of humanity, when men and women first became aware of the pain and suffering caused by abnormal conditions, such as the invasion of their bodies by other organisms. Ever since they evolved from apes, humans were infected by the same diseases that afflicted their primate ancestors and that were caused by microbes that originated and adapted to their hosts millions of years ago. Some of these “heirloom” infections include herpes, hepatitis, and yellow fever, all caused by viruses, as well as malaria, caused by a plasmodium. Later, when humans became hunters, other diseases passed to them from animals when they ate raw or partial y cooked meats. For instance, Paleolithic man may have suffered from a variety of bacterial diseases, including anthrax, brucellosis, tularemia, and glanders, as a result of the microbes being present in the wild game they hunted.3

However, the opportunities for disease causation and spread are thought to have increased dramatically with the advent of settled agriculture at the dawn of the Neolithic period in c. 8000 B.C.E. Maintaining close and regular contact with domesticated animals, not to mention with other humans, as well as creating stagnant reservoir pools such as irrigation ditches and accumulating large amounts of human waste, perhaps within contaminating distance of drinking supplies, opened a new chapter in the disease history of humankind by al owing il nesses to become endemic, or perpetual y present, in the artificial microbe pools thus created. Chronic diseases that could thrive even in small populations and that were associated with the new, man-made environments include tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, and typhoid fever. However, some “density-dependent” diseases, such as measles or smallpox, that may have originated in Neolithic man’s newfound relationship with domesticated animals nonetheless had to wait until human populations became large enough to sustain them, which could not have happened much before 3000 B.C.E. Other ills that are caused by dietary deficiencies also increased at this time, despite the fact that more and steadier supplies of food were now available, since this was offset by a decline in the variety of foods that had formerly been consumed under more nomadic circumstances.4

Eventually, trade, war, migrations, and other activities that brought distant human populations together were also to add to this disease environment, of which illnesses like plague and influenza were to be the primary beneficiaries. Early humans also made efforts to counteract or compensate for disease-ridden conditions

Introduction y 3

by designing sewer systems, imposing unclean food taboos, or setting up social barriers between disparate populations or “castes,” such as were distinctive features of ancient civilizations in India and Palestine (Hebrew culture). Yet, such efforts may have had mixed success. For example, the impressive sewer systems uncovered in the urban environments of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, part of the Indus River valley civilization in India dating to around 2600 B.C.E., even boasts individual household latrines connecting to the underground drains. It would seem obvious that this was part of an effort to contain waste contamination and protect freshwa-ter drinking supplies, but one should not discount the possibility that it was equally motivated by a desire to efficiently collect waste for use as fertilizer, in which case the likelihood of contracting disease would only increase.5

Toward the end of the Neolithic period, we begin to accumulate other evidence of the impact of disease upon human societies aside from the archaeological. Our most valuable sources now become the written records that first make their appearance around 3000 B.C.E. Perhaps the earliest descriptions of and references to disease can be found in ancient Mesopotamian literature. The epic poem
, written down around 2000 B.C.E. but recounting events that apparently occurred several centuries earlier, tells of how the hero’s friend, Enkidu, contracts a debilitating illness that confines him to his bed for twelve days until he dies. The identity of the disease that kills Enkidu is never made clear, for its symptoms are not described; we know only that it causes Enkidu great pain and that he ascribes it to the curse of the gods in retribution for slay-ing the Bull of Heaven. However, further details as to what this illness may have entailed are supplied by the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” part of the Mesopotamian wisdom literature dating to the Babylonian period during the first half of the third millennium B.C.E. Like Enkidu, the “Babylonian Job” lies prostrate in his bed, although his condition is more fully described: He has become deaf, blind, and dumb; a stiffness has taken over his limbs; and his flesh has become emaciated and inflamed. All this is accompanied by a headache, intestinal distress, and discharge of phlegm; at its worst, the disease forces the patient to spend “the night in my dung like an ox” and wallow “in my excrement like a sheep.” If the disease has come from the gods, the sufferer remains mystified as to why, since he has performed all of the usual rituals, libations, prayers, and other observances in honor of his deities. Like the later biblical Job, however, the sufferer is eventually redeemed by the Babylonian god Marduk, who restores him to his former health and happiness.

From the almost equally ancient Egyptian culture comes the first recorded medical literature in history, the medical or surgical papyri, the oldest of which perhaps dates to the time of Imhotep in the 2600s B.C.E., even though the manuscript itself was not written down until about a thousand years later. In 4 y Introduction

these medical papyri, Egyptian physicians describe both the medical conditions they are trying to treat—which as often as not are trauma instead of disease related—and their remedies, which include both magical incantations and more “rational” techniques such as surgery and herbal recipes. Interpretation of these texts, however, is hampered by the still inexact knowledge of hieroglyphics and by the fact that the ancient Egyptian mind-set was quite unlike our modern outlook.6 In addition, Egyptian art, despite its often stylized representations, sometimes depicts spinal or limb abnormalities in statuary and relief carvings of its subjects, deformities that were possibly caused by disease. Finally, on occasion we are fortunate enough to have the physical evidence of the diseased body itself, preserved in mummified form with even the skin still intact, a unique contribution of ancient Egyptian culture. This has allowed scholars to detect diseases even when they did not penetrate to the bone, such as the smallpox lesions evident on the lower face, neck, and shoulders of the pharaoh, Ramses V, who died in c.

BOOK: Plagues in World History
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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