Category Archives: history of medicine

Contagion and Pestilence in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies

Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). Bishop, confessor and Doctor of the Church. Altarpiece of Saint Isidore. 15th century. Diocesan Museum of Calatayud. Spain.

Before Isidore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet, he was known for over a thousand years as a font of knowledge.  Isidore was not an innovator; he was a master of synthesis. It is through Isidore that we have an orderly account of the learned knowledge of the Late Roman world.  He was conscious of the fact that he was saving information at risk of being lost.  His Etymologies, written in twenty sections between 621 and 636, was both the Latin dictionary and encyclopedia of the entire medieval period. Isidore is not always correct — there is a lot of sounds-like etymology– but his explanations were accepted throughout the medieval period. So, Isidore is an ideal source to gain an understanding of how modern terms like contagion and pestilence were defined from the early seventh century in the midst of the first plague pandemic.

From Book IV: On Acute Illnesses:

17. Pestilence is a contagion that as soon as it seizes on one person quickly spreads to many. It arises from corrupt air and maintains itself by penetrating the internal organs. Although this is generally caused by powers in air, it never occurs without the consent of God. 18. It is called pestilence (pestilentia) as if it were pastulentia, because it consumes (depascere, ppl. depastus) like fire, as Vergil, Aen. 5.683): The pestilence descends on the whole body*. Likewise contagion (contagium) is from ‘touching’ (contingere), because it contaminates anyone it touches. 19. The swellings (inguen) (ie. bubonic plague) are so called from their striking the groin (inguen). Pestilence is also called plague (lues), so called from destruction (labes) and distress (luctus), and is so violent that there is no time to anticipate life or death, but weakness comes suddenly together with death. (p. 110-111).

The general definition of both pestilence and contagion, along with their spellings in Latin, are recognizable to us today. The modern editors note that Vergil is using pestilence as a metaphor for the burning of a Trojan ship. It is on the origin or mechanism of pestilence where we differ. Isidore’s world understood medicine as a function of airs and humors, a topic for another time. He also writes of plague again in his On the Nature of Things, which was less influential than the Etymologies. In a later post I will look at what the Venerable Bede does with both the works of Isidore and Pliny in his own On the Nature of Things.

Inguen as the term for a swelling in the groin is the what draws my attention. Inguen is the root for the modern word inguinal; as in inguinal bubo.  Two of the most important European historians of the first pandemic, Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon, used the term inguinaria for the pandemic. Unfortunately, inguinaria is usually literally lost in translation. Rather than leaving inguinaria as the early medieval term for bubonic plague, it is usually translated as the less specific ‘plague’ or a little better ‘inguinal plague’. Even in the translation above, it is translated as swelling with the original word in parenthesis.

Bubo is likewise said to come from the Greek word for groin, boubon (βουβών), but I have not found a source to discuss its earliest use. Isidore does not discuss the term bubo or the Greek term boubon, presumably using inguen instead. Greek boubon translates into Latin as inguen, both meaning groin or swelling the groin. Ironically “inguinal bubo” then duplicates the same meaning. It would be interesting to know if boubon or bubonic is a word used for the first pandemic (541-c. 750) in the Eastern Roman empire.

One of the important inferences from the derivation of inguen/boubon is that it supports the groin as the primary site of early infection. So while buboes can be found in the axilla and neck, and there are other transmission routes, it was recognized from the beginning as a disease of the groin. This in turn supports fleas as the primary transmission vector, since as insects found on the floor most of the time, they usually bite on the legs resulting in an inguinal bubo.

Reference: Barney, SA, Lewis, WI, Beach, JA, and Berghof, O. (trans and ed). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge, 2006.

Expanding the Historical Plague Paradigm

When the first complete genomic sequence of Yersinia pestis was published on October 4, 2001 the world was naturally focused elsewhere, on anthrax bioterrorism — the Amerithrax incident was then in its second week– and the September 11 attacks were just over three weeks old. As the world redeveloped bioterrorism assessments and plans, plague was placed on lists along with anthrax, smallpox and yes, ebola as agents of national security concern and response.  Although plague produced more annual cases than most agents on the category A bioterrorism list, it was placed on the list primarily based on its historical reputation and past attempts to weaponize it (also based on its reputation). Yet, in 2001 there was a fierce debate ranging among historians and others on whether Yersinia pestis was the agent of the Black Death at all.

It would take another ten years before genomics would revolutionize our understanding of the historical plague. On October 12, 2011 the first draft sequence of an ancient plague genome was published. Finally, adding to the detection of Yersinia pestis DNA tests previously done on remains, the draft sequence isolated from the East Smithfield Black Death cemetery in London solidified consensus that Yersinia pestis is the agent of the Black Death pandemic.  Meanwhile, the phylogenetic tree of Yersinia pestis had been constructed based on the genetic sequence of isolates from all over the globe. Ancient and modern Yersinia pestis genomes were opening a new window into the history of the species.

As fundamental as genomic analysis is to the new understanding of historical plague, it is a skeleton of data that is open to many different historical interpretations. Science can’t adequately explain the historic plague epidemics alone; it takes historical context. In the inaugural double issue of The Medieval Globe,  Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death (open access) begins this process. The eleven articles in this issue take the genetic identification of Yersinia pestis  as the agent of the Black Death as foundational and integrate modern biological and epidemiological information into a new global Old World assessment of the history of the Black Death and subsequent epidemics. Each of these articles lays the groundwork for future interdisciplinary work between historians, anthropologists, biologists, epidemiologists and others.

In my own contribution to this issue, “The Black Death and the Future of the Plague” I discuss why plague is still important in the modern world and for our future. Plague has played an integral role in the development of the re-emerging infectious diseases paradigm and is an agent of biosecurity concern. I review the current state of plague around the world, what we have learned about plague epidemiology and transmission, and how it can be applied to historic epidemics. I also make my case for why the study of the entire history of plague is uniquely important and why the sciences and humanities must move forward together.  I hope we can engage in a discussion on these issues here in the comments section, on twitter or by email.

My own interest and awareness of the issues surrounding the study of the plague was transformed when I had the great fortune to be invited by Monica Green to participate in a session at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans, January 2013. The group of plague scholars gathered there has largely remained in contact and expanded our network into an informal working group that has enriched all of our scholarship.  No one can become fully conversant with all of the disciplines involved in the study of even one epidemic, much less the entire history of the plague.  Working in disciplinary seclusion will not produce a satisfying paradigm or widespread consensus. It takes work, patience and some tolerance of how other disciplines work, but I have found it to always be worth it. I hope you will agree.

Some references for the milestones mentioned:

Parkhill, J., Wren, B. W., Thomson, N. R., Titball, R. W., Holden, M. T., Prentice, M. B., et al. (2001). Genome sequence of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. Nature, 413(6855), 523–527. doi:10.1038/35097083

Morelli, G., Song, Y., Mazzoni, C. J., Eppinger, M., Roumagnac, P., Wagner, D. M., et al. (2010). Yersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity. Nature Genetics, 1–20. doi:10.1038/ng.705

Little, L. K. (2011). Plague Historians in Lab Coats. Past & Present, 213(1), 267–290. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtr014

Bos, K. I., Schuenemann, V. J., Golding, G. B., Burbano, H. A., Waglechner, N., Coombes, B. K., et al. (2011). A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Nature, 1–5. doi:10.1038/nature10549

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death. Edited by Monica Green. The Medieval Globe, 1 (1), 2014.

Autumn Reading

Autumn 2014

So much for my plan to do monthly reading updates. I think quarterly might be more feasible. It seems like the fall has flown by and was not as productive as I would have liked. Isn’t that always the way?

So I’m currently working my way through Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine and then next up will be the brand new second edition of Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire AD 284-641.

Books finished:
  • Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone press, 2014 (reviewed here)
  • Prokopius, The Secret History and Related Texts. Anthony Kaldellis, ed. Hackett, 2010.
  • David Quammen. Ebola: A Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. 2014. (excerpted, adapted and updated from his Spillover)
Notable Papers
  • Setzer, T. J. (2014). Malaria detection in the field of paleopathology: A meta-analysis of the state of the art. Acta Tropica, 140, 97–104. doi:10.1016/j.actatropica.2014.08.010 (summarized here)
  • Christina Lee. (2014). Invisible enemies: the role of epidemics in the shaping of historical events in the early medieval period in. Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability, 1–17.
  • Sallares, R. (2006). Role of environmental changes in the spread of malaria in Europe during the Holocene. Quaternary International, 150(1), 21–27. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2006.01.005
  • Sallares, R., Bouwman, A., & Anderung, C. (2004). The spread of malaria to Southern Europe in antiquity: new approaches to old problems. Medical History, 48(3), 311–328.
  • Collins, W. E., & Jeffery, G. M. (2007). Plasmodium malariae: Parasite and Disease. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 20(4), 579–592. doi:10.1128/CMR.00027-07
  • Schreg, Rainer. (2014) “Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology” European Journal of Archaeology, 17 (1), 83-119.
  • Flaherty, E. (2014). Assessing the distribution of social–ecological resilience and risk: Ireland as a case study of the uneven impact of famine. Ecological Complexity, 19, 35–45. doi:10.1016/j.ecocom.2014.04.002
  • SHARPE, W. D., &  Isidore of Seville. (1964). Isidore of Seville: the Medical Writings. An English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, 54(2), 1–75.
  • Carter, R., & Mendis, K. N. (2002). Evolutionary and Historical Aspects of the Burden of Malaria. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 15(4), 564–594. doi:10.1128/CMR.15.4.564-594.2002
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time this autumn reading the pre-print editions of the contributions to Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death edited by Monica Green in the inaugural edition of The Medieval Globe, which I’m honored to be a contributor to. Watch this space for more news on this special issue very soon.