Xenophobia and Moral Condemnation in Plague Epidemics

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Lecture by Darin Hayton
Assistant Professor of the History of Science
History Department, Haverford College

From antiquity to the modern era, responses to plague outbreaks quickly adopt a common formula. On the one hand, the origin of the plague is located in some distant, exotic foreign land. On the other hand, lax morals and irreligious practices of locals cause the epidemic to invade any given city. This rhetorical tradition can be traced from Thucydides? account of the Plague of Athens through its later expressions in famous medieval, modern and contemporary pandemics. A close look at the responses to the French Disease (aka Syphilis), which erupted amongst the French troops besieging Naples in 1495, illustrates the power of these explanations. In the process, what is revealed is how epidemics are social and political phenomena and not simply (or even primarily) medical catastrophes.

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