The Debate About Plague in Medieval Times

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The Debate About Plague in Medieval Times

By | November 2011
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Leila Chebbi
Short Paper

John Theilmann and Frances Cate
A Plague of Plagues: The Problem of Plague Diagnosis in Medieval England Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii:3 (Winter, 2007), 371–393., (from the Journal of world History)

The debate about the 1348-49 plague epidemic: how do we build historical facts? Is there such a thing as certainty in world history to 1500?

The significant plague epidemic of the mid-fourteenth century is a vivid example of how cultures were linked at the time, and how it was possible for the plague bacillus to spread, affecting large populations on a vast geographic area: in fact the plague epidemic first struck in East Asia and rapidly made its way through the Black Sea to Western Europe. Migrations and trade helped to spread the epidemic across Europe, and by the end of the year 1351 between 25 and 50 percent of Europe’s population had fallen victim to the epidemic. The death poll is unprecedented in recorded world history. However, recorded sources cast a serious doubt whether the great pestilence was really the plague or another illness referred to as the great pestilence – the plague thus becoming merely “a label for a disease of extreme virulence” (Theilmann and Cate, 2007, 2). By focusing on the case of 1349 England, John Theilmann and Frances Cate explore the controversy between the scholars in favor of the plague theory and those that question it, thus offering an interesting reflection on how historical certainties are built.

Theilmann and Cate first present their article as an interdisciplinary study focusing both on historical sources and medical/biological evidence which include laboratory tests about the plague bacillus – Yersinia Pestis - and comparisons with more recent epidemics. The authors state that their intent will be to show that the debate about the plague is justified, although they are in favor of the plague theory.

Theilmann and Cate present both sides of the debate, giving first an...