Just a little update on my reading in August. I’ve been jumping around a bit reading on the history of malaria and wetlands. Lots of interesting bits and pieces!
John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature, 2013.
Gregory of Tours (d. 594): Glory of the Confessors
Gregory of Tours (d. 594): The Life of the Fathers
Looking at what diseases people are seeking cures for primarily at the shrines of the saints.
William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples. 1976.
I reread this book about every ten years, so I’m working my way through it over lunch at work at the present. Odd to reread a book I first read in the late 1980s as a student. Its surprising how well it holds up, but it is now out of date in biology, history and anthropology. It really can’t be used to represent modern views on either infectious disease biology or history. We really need a new, updated edition! Just to give a few examples, HIV hadn’t even been identified in 1976 (as McNeill mentions in the preface of the 1998 edition) and antibiotic resistance and ‘(re)emerging infectious diseases’ were not considered critical problems (although both had begun to appear).
Robert Sallares, Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy. 2002 (in progress)
Standout Papers – (more or less in order they were read)
Couser, J. (2010). The Changing Fortunes of Early Medieval Bavaria to 907 ad. History Compass, 8(4), 330–344. doi:10.1111/j.1478-0542.2009.00671.x
King, G., & Henderson, C. (2013). Living cheek by jowl: The pathoecology of medieval York. Quaternary International, xxx, 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.07.032
Förster, F., Großmann, R., Hinz, M., Iwe, K., Kinkel, H., Larsen, A., et al. (2013). Towards mutual understanding within interdisciplinary palaeoenvironmental research: An exemplary analysis of the term landscape. Quaternary International, 312(C), 4–11. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.07.045
Rippon, S. (2009). ‘Uncommonly rich and fertile’ or “not very salubrious?” The Perception and Value of Wetland Landscapes. Landscapes, 10(1), 39–60.
Bankoff, G. (2013). The“English Lowlands” and the North Sea Basin System: A History of Shared Risk. Environment and History, 19(1), 3–37.
Justin T. Noetzel. Monster, Demon, Warrior: St Guthlac and the Cultural Landscape of the Anglo-Saxon Fens. Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Volume 45, 2014, pp. 105-131.
O’Sullivan, L., Jardine, A., Cook, A., & Weinstein, P. (2008). Deforestation, mosquitoes, and ancient Rome: Lessons for today. BioScience, 58(8), 756–760.
Welcome to the 66th edition of On Giant’s Shoulders, the blog carnival for the history of science, medicine and technology! I wish I could pull a bunch of holiday posts out of Santa’s bag, but the blogosphere does not appear to be in the festive mood yet. An anniversary and commemoration mood seems to be prevailing as the end of the year approaches, so for historians this should be a gift!
One thing has become clear from looking at the sources of posts this month is that history of medicine and science has indeed become contagious, no longer limited to just typical blogs. We have traditional bloggers writing feature stories in newspapers and journals, large group blogs, the rise of library, archive and society ‘blogs’, and guest bloggers being invited to give context on blogs, some not normally about history. There are a growing number of options to blog outside of traditional one author blogs.
Marking history in our times
Most of this issue is, of course, on medieval and early modern medicine, but I can’t let a couple of important modern history anniversaries pass unremarked. The H word celebrated 30th anniversary of PCR with two guest posts: the secret life of the laboratory by Charolette Sleigh and bringing meaning to technology by Jean-Baptiste Gouyon. This month one of the great genetics pioneers of the late 20th century, Frederick Sanger passed away. This two time Nobel prize winner made the sequencing of DNA and protein possible. Without Sanger sequencing there is no telling how long the genetic revolution would have been delayed. Originally done with radioactivity, here is a modern fluorescent Sanger for those of you unfamiliar with what sequencing looks like. Festive, isn’t it?
Part of all the remembrances of the JFK assassination , Circulating Now had a post on JFK’s career long support of the foundation and development of the National Library of Medicine. The New York Academy of Medicine featured a post on the WHO’s AIDS posters from the 1987-1995, soon after recognition of the pandemic.
Pathogens and Pandemics
Although not strictly a blog post, the Royal Society has posted podcasts of the November 2013 Ancient DNA conference, including the session by Johannes Kraus whose lab sequenced the East Smithfield plague isolates. While on the topic of plague podcasts, another series of four Ellen McArthur lectures by Bruce Campbell on “The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the 13th and 14th Centuries”came online earlier in the year but I don’t think has been part of his carnival yet. Listening to these lectures is vital for anyone interested in plague history, environmental or economic history.
Caroline Rance of The Quack Doctor has been featuring a post a day for ADvent on historic ads for medical devices and quack medications. The first ad is for a health jolting chair, you can follow the posts daily from there.
Explore Your Archive featured the strange case of Dr James Barry, a 19th century Inspector General of military hospitals, and the secret revealed at his death.
Jacob Darwin Hamblin hosted the E-Environment roundtable to review two books, Sam White’s The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (effects of the ‘little ice age’ on the Ottomans) and Alan Mikhail’s Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt. E-Environment roundtable issues are open access.
Seb Falk of Astrolabs and Stuff wrote up a seminar summary by Hascok Chan’s on his controversial keynote address from this summer’s International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine on “Putting Science back into History of Science”.
The January edition of On Giant’s Shoulders will be hosted by Jennifer Evans (@HistorianJen) of Early Modern Medicineon January 16, 2014. Submissions are due to Jennifer directly or to The Renaissance Mathematicus (@rmathematicus) no later than Jan. 15.
Book Citation: A.P. Cook & N.D. Cook. The Plague Files: Crisis Management in Sixteenth-Century Seville. Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8071-4360-5.
Topic: Public Health Crisis Management
Time and Place: Seville, Spanish Empire, 1579-1581.
Those interested in history, crisis management, public health, and political science; written for a general audience.
The Plague Files is an intensive history of the daily challenges and crises dealt with by the royal governor and city council of Seville from 1579 to 1582. As its title implies, this book is about crisis management and it stays true to this focus. Seville was faced with two very different pandemics, influenza and plague, within the same year compounded by food shortages, economic pressures, response funding difficulties, response fatigue, and the potential of civil unrest. If you ever wondered what it would be like for plague and an influenza pandemic to go (sequentially) head to head in the same population, Seville in 1579-1580 is your ideal test population. The challenges and limitations of both quarantine and a cordon sanitaire are highlighted throughout the book.
I was impressed by their case investigation and surveillance system.Workers were contracted and paid based on their service, so detailed reports were filed to justify their pay from the plague commission. Using these reports, the authors were able to trace the detailed steps of case investigators as they tracked exposed people and textiles that they viewed as contagious. Dispatched surveillance officers also had to file detailed reports of their efforts and findings to draw their pay. The Count of Villar, the royal governor, handed out penalties including jail time for officials and others who were deemed negligent in their duties.
It was fascinating to see how their concepts of contagion played into their public health response. Textiles were the gravest concern for controlling plague contagion inside the city walls. The trail of dead owners of some clothing or bedding seems to justify their concern. Yet, there is no evidence of personal protective equipment/behavior or concern over grain storage. On the other hand, the city was on the verge of starvation much of the time so they couldn’t be very choosy about grain shipment or storage. Physicians were advisers to the Plague Council but not central to the decision-making process. Most were hired to work for the duration of the plague, often one per hospital or outlying village. The Plague Council was primarily concerned with controlling movements of people, and providing and paying for the poor and destitute who they knew were kindling for an explosive outbreak. Diagnosis was the physicians most useful duty to the plague council. Plague diagnoses were complicated by concurrent outbreaks of influenza, typhus, other ‘common fevers’ (possibly malaria), and malnutrition. There is no doubt that the plague with all its classic symptoms was the primary pathogen.
One of my take home lessons from The Plague Files is how long and relentless a plague outbreak could be. Response fatigue was a critical problem for everyone. People just get tired of the restrictions and become conditioned to the steadiness of death. Unlike the short, sharp influenza mortality, plague deaths often trickled in at less than ten per week for months punctuated by spikes of death.
Historical & Scientific Content:
This microhistory draws almost entirely from a cache of primary source documents in Seville’s Municipal Archive. Surprisingly, quotes from these documents are very short. The focus on Seville is so intense context is often lacking.
The science is anecdotal and kept at the level of sixteenth century understanding. They don’t apply modern understanding of plague or influenza. Medical treatment is discussed vaguely; few specific treatments are detailed. For example, the council paid for apothecaries to stock and provide plague medicines but the authors didn’t discuss what they stocked or if they had difficulty obtaining medicines. It appears that there was no standard treatment or medication used in the region. They don’t make an effort to accumulate data or do any standard epidemiological analysis. By the end of the book I was craving some data. The volume of anecdotal evidence does provide plenty of evidence that diagnosis was not very secure for many individuals complicating data classification. Historical epidemiologists will have to cope with other concurrent diseases, significant for plague outbreaks that last months to over a year. Ironically in the case of Seville, I suspect a standard epidemiological chart of total deaths vs time would have highlighted the difference between influenza and plague.
References, Illustrations, and Usability
It has a full bibliography but minimal footnotes, mostly to primary sources. I suspect that it would be fairly difficult to look for more information based on their footnotes and access to the primary sources. They appear to have made minimal use of the secondary sources, or at least there are very minimal footnotes to them. It does have a glossary for Spanish terms; all quotes are translated. The illustrations were okay. It could have used a few more local maps fit into the text where appropriate.
I recommend this book primarily for biosecurity and crisis managers. Its usefulness to the sciences and humanities is primarily for anecdotal information.