Containing Contagion: Perception and Prevention of Plague in the Late Middle Ages
By Catherine Dolber
Graduate Paper (2010)
Introduction: Although the Medieval period lacked the concept of germ theory and the tools necessary to make such a discovery, the Western tradition of medicine was not unfamiliar with the analytical diagnosis of diseases. When the Black Death, one of the world’s deadliest epidemics, struck the European continent, the people afflicted with plague looked to those already respected in the medical field. With the familiar teachings of Hippocrates and Galen along with newly developed theories, European governments and citizens looked for answers aside from divine retribution. The swift course and immense death toll of the pestilence pushed many to formulate their own theories on generation and prevention of the Black Death and its many reincarnations.
Whereas common modern perceptions often actively pit religion against science in this period, the magnitude of the Black Death and the cyclical resurfacing of the plague throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern era highlights a time in which the comforting words of a religious leader did little to assuage the public’s fears. While medical practitioners assured patients of their authority in the realm of the natural world, when the Church, the representation of the divine in the natural world, was proven fallible, the questioning people of Europe were challenged by a necessary shift in the previously accepted worldview; from blind acceptance of the punishments from the Christian god to a greater understanding of the natural world and man’s ability to effect it.
Given the immense impact the Black Death had upon European society, there are approximately six hundred and sixty years worth of scholarship at the disposal of modern academics. Scholarly works written before modern accepted theory serve as artifacts of each period’s perception of medical practice, creating a line of theoretical and practical succession. However, with new information becoming available, the best sources for the analysis of a disease itself, as well as the most accurate Late Medieval / Early Modern responses to such an epidemic,are found in the most recent scholarship possible.
For the translation and compilation of contemporary documents regarding the Black Death, Rosemary Horrox’s The Black Death brings together many papers from the early years of the outbreak which illustrate the different facets of society that were affected by the epidemic. Through choice scientific and religious explanations and responses and discussing the consequences and repercussions seen throughout European society, Horrox expresses her thesis concerning the fear that accompanied the disease and the varied ways that fear influenced contemporary society.