Gothic Epidemiology? or Gothic Historiography?

I was reading David Mengel’s recent article on plague in Bohemia and he kept referring to this apparently well-known concept, gothic epidemiology. Being the early medieval geek that I am, my first thought was Ostrogoth or Visigoth, and what do they have to do with epidemiology, especially in Bohemia? Feeling that I was clearing missing out on an important concept in plague studies, I looked up the original paper by Faye Marie Getz in 1991.

It turns out that Getz was referring to the genre of Gothic literature that began in the 18th century when Gothic came to mean anything that “offended Enlightenment sensibilities”, anything anti-modern to the new men of the age of reason. ‘Gothic’ architecture gave way to neo-classical architecture, and Roman and Greek revival artistic motifs were everywhere. Yet, Gothic literature typified by Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and the works of Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe also developed during this time.  Getz characterized the essential elements of Gothic literary sensibility as

“an interest in distant and exotic places and times, especially in the Middle Ages and the Orient; the celebration of the power of nature and the ineffability of nature’s essence; the unity of disparate elements – of good and evil, the hideous and the beautiful, the dead and the living; the seduction of the primitive and wild in nature, of the bizarre; the insignificance of human beings against nature; the existence of geniuses; the importance of individual experience; and finally the emphasis on suffering, death, and redemption.” (p. 279)

Getz and others have found that from the mid-eighteenth century historians wrote of the plague as typifying and glorifying this Gothic sensibility. It was these early historians who made the plague a symbol of all that is dark, deadly and medieval.

The most influential gothic epidemiologist was Justin Hecker whose influential book Der schwarze Tod im vierzehten Jahrhunder  (The Black Death in the Fourteenth Century) in 1832 began modern plague studies. Getz characterizes Hecker’s book as seeing the plague as an inescapable force of nature that swept away the old, bringing historical change and most importantly progress.

“The miasma of plague was in Hecker both literally and figuratively atmospheric. It rolled like a fog out of the mysterious East, a crawling miasma exhaled by earthquakes and volcanoes, by the rotting dead in graveyards and battlefields, by decaying matter in marshes and swamps. Plague leveled all those who stood before it and spared no person. It seeped into churches, castles, and cottages. There was no escape. Nature herself spoke of the coming disaster. Comets, earthquakes, and volcanoes shattered man’s complacency. A pillar of fire appeared over the papal palace at Avignon. Plants and animals behaved in a bizarre manner. The very heavens rained disaster.” (Getz 1991: 276-277)

The plague itself was as heroic as disastrous.   Nature becomes God’s avenging army that sweeps away a whole civilization that has gone astray. Getz believes that Hecker set the foundation for most 19th and 20th century plague scholarship on four basic pillars: 1) the Black Death marked the end of an era and the start of a reinvigorated, more industrious society; 2) the plague was a natural phenomenon that was beyond human understanding,  awesome in its power, and unlike anything before or since;  3) the Black Death was a double-edged sword that was both terrible  in its destruction but also culturally transformative, begetting the Renaissance, and 4) a focus on the bizarre and morbid facts and behaviors. Getz notes that Hecker was the first person to focus on Flagellants or the massacre of Jews during the Black Death, two aspects of the pandemic that still draw an extraordinary amount of attention.  These four elements compromise what Getz calls Gothic epidemiology.

Many plague historians followed in Hecker’s footsteps (and occasionally still do). The morbid and bizarre feature more in plague history than in any other area of the history of medicine. The plague doctor has become an icon of  the Middle Ages.  Claims that the plague is the root cause behind vampires, werewolves and revenants/zombies are still made. The awesomeness of the plague as a natural phenomenon is still with us and can almost border on nature worship. Nearly 150 years after Hecker’s paradigm emerged, Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (1983) opens with a Chaucer  quotation, “Nature, the vicaire of the almyghty lorde” (The Parliament of Fowls, c. 1380). So two of Hecker’s four pillars are still with us in varying degrees. Given how popular Gothic culture still is, these elements are likely to remain.

The dilemma for plague historians and scientists comes in attracting interdisciplinary and public attention for their work without distorting the history and/or science. The easiest way to attract attention is by focusing on either the bizarre and morbid, or on nature’s power and plague’s uniqueness. This is the same compromise documentary films must make.  To avoid this fate some will be happy writing only for other academics of their ilk, but for all except the most specialized topics this is short-sighted. First, as one of the most interdisciplinary topics available today it is necessary to write so that other disciplines can understand and follow the argument, and to highlight aspects that are interesting to other disciplines. It not fair to complain about the misuse of our work if we don’t write at an interdisciplinary level. Given the wide range of disciplines involved in plague studies this is essentially a college-level general public audience. Second, the plague’s attraction for those who like elements of  Gothic culture means that there are educational opportunities for history and science. The CDC received a fair amount of attention for its Zombie apocalypse  preparedness educational program and the Zombie Research Society has a real epidemiologist on their advisory board. Of course, zombies being entirely fictional gives them a lot of latitude. However, if done carefully the plague can still be used to teach history and science without over focusing on only the most bizarre aspects or distorting its history.

The other two of Hecker’s pillars are the creation of academics rather than appealing to the public. Did the plague end an era and create a positive cultural transformation? Most plague historians can dispatch the idea that the Black Death was a great boundary in time after which everything changed. This is not to say that the plague didn’t have a cultural impact but it did not beget the Renaissance or the Reformation. It is just as likely that in periods of cultural transformation and upheaval, humans are more vulnerable to the plague and its transmission patterns. Meaning the plague gathered momentum because of cultural changes rather than being the cause of cultural change.

This also makes me think of the questions that surround the Plague of Justinian that began in 541. Did it end antiquity? Did it prevent the Western Roman Empire from recovering and reasserting itself? No. How odd that we place a plague pandemic at the beginning and end of the Medieval period.  Who determined when ‘classical antiquity‘ was as a period? Those same 17-18th century elites who developed Gothic literature. As modern historians show more continuity across time periods, there is a tendency to chip away at the length of the medieval period. The new designation of Late Antiquity is chipping the period of c. 500-750 away from early medieval, taking the Plague of Justianian with it. Fitting for a plague named for a Roman emperor?

In the Gothic epidemiology paradigm, the plague of Justianian must have been minimized to the point that it was forgotten for a long time. Afterall, it didn’t create a reinvigorated society; it marked the beginning of the medieval period, the ‘dark ages‘. The term ‘dark ages’ being contrasted with the supposed light of Rome. Perhaps we should refer to Gothic historiography rather than epidemiology since the paradigm clearly goes beyond just the Black Death.


Getz FM (1991). Black death and the silver lining: meaning, continuity, and revolutionary change in histories of medieval plague. Journal of the history of biology, 24 (2), 265-89 PMID: 11612554

Mengel DC (2011). A plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death. Past & present, 211 (1), 3-34 PMID: 21961188

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2 thoughts on “Gothic Epidemiology? or Gothic Historiography?

  1. This article points to a central problem for medievalists speaking to general audiences, whether historians of other periods, students, or mass media: periodization based not just on dates but on characterizations of what constitutes “medieval” (Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, tackles this from a post-colonial perspective). It is virtually impossible to get away from the “not modern” definition of medieval when the plague and other dramatic imagery becomes the defining element of change.
    I would be inclined, in the chicken and egg question, to find a lot of changes in the middle of the fourteenth century predating as well as postdating the plague that are greater causes of a paradigm shift in European culture than a force of nature like the plague. One of the things historians struggle with in relation to natural and social scientists, is that much as we would like a single-cause explanation, preferably a measurable force, for historical change, history is too complex, with too many variables that we cannot control for, not to mention the inability to reduplicate the past in its entirety to prove anything in the way science does.

    1. I don’t think that the plague either started or ended the medieval period.

      I think plague histories have been effected by some of the same romantic/gothic influences of 18th-19th century historians as Anglo-Saxon studies. In Anglo-Saxon studies these romantic impulses come out as heroism but in plague studies it comes out as glorifying nature.

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