Thursday, July 5, 2018

Samuel Kline Cohn, Jr.'s "Epidemics"

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Over the past sixteen years, he has focused on the history of popular unrest in late medieval and early modern Europe and on the history of disease and medicine. Cohn's recent books include Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns and Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Others refused to name it after the French or any other people and referred instead to the disease’s physical signs—‘mala pustularum’ or ‘turgentium pustularum’, as with Heidelberg physician Conrad Schellig and Ioannes Trithenmius—or just the pustules, as with the Spanish physician Marcellus Cumanus, active at Navarra in 1495, even though he described soldiers returning from war in Venice and Milan as carrying it to his home town.
Page 99 falls near the beginning of chapter 5: ‘Syphilis: Naming and Blaming?’ The page questions the long-held belief that after the explosion and spread of syphilis during Charles VIII’s siege of Naples in January 1495, countries blamed one another for the disease: a tit-for-tat verbal battle ensued: Italians calling it the French disease; the French, the mal de Naples, the Germans naming it after the Poles, and so on. Instead, on an unprecedented scale, a wide variety of names for this disease quickly developed, arising from the fact that physicians and others could not agree whether the disease was new or a form of leprosy that dated back to Biblical times, and, as they insisted, a disease needed a name.

These names, however, most often centred on the physical signs of the disease--poxes, pustules, and warts--its seeming relation to leprosy, or after its patron saint, Job. The one name after a country that did stick for a century and a half was the French disease (malfrancese or morbus Gallicus). Yet this name was lodged mainly in medical texts and not with commoners. Moreover, commentators such as Ullrich von Hutten and the famous Florentine statesman-historian Francesco Guicciardini made it clear that calling it after the French was in no way intended to blame them. In the most widely published syphilis pamphlet of the sixteenth century, von Hutten, whose text was entitled, De Morbo Gallico, countered that France was ‘the most civilized and hospitable now in existence’. Finally, no evidence has yet to emerge of any riots or even individual attacks against those perceived as carrying syphilis or against the French or any other foreigners named for the disease during the early modern period: naming was not blaming.

Page 99 reflects a trait running through this book: long-held views about the socio-psychological effects of large epidemics need to be contested. Most notably, diseases imagined as new and mysterious were not the ones most likely to spark blame or violence against the diseased ‘other’.
Learn more about Epidemics at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue