Diagnosis of a “Plague” Image: A Digital Cautionary Tale
By Monica H. Green, Kathleen Walker-Meikle, and Wolfgang P. Müller
The Medieval Globe, Vol.1 (2014)
Introduction: A particular objective of this special issue of The Medieval Globe, “Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death,” is to interrogate how scientific and humanistic approaches to plague’s histories can enrich and expand one another. Science, we have argued, has developed methods to reconstruct the deep histories of pathogenic organisms in addition to studying them as they exist in the present-day world. At the same time, the humanistic disciplines retain their power to reconstruct human activities that may have contributed to Yersinia pestis’s amplification throughout the world and to describe and explain how humans responded to that threat. All disciplines involved in the analysis of the past have rigorous standards of what constitutes evidence and what kinds of interpretations are valid. Multidisciplinary work demands due respect for those traditions.
This short essay offers a lesson in caution. It is a story of error, but also an opportunity to be reminded of the care needed to properly contextualize all our evidence—to be reminded, as L. P. Hartley famously said, that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To negotiate this country successfully, we need to learn its language.
See also this presentation by Monica Green: ‘The Unknown Vectors of the Black Death’ on February 4, 2015 at Rutgers University