Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic: Voices from History

Disease has been a constant companion of humankind throughout the ages. As civilisations rose, populations flourished, and trade routes expanded, people brought their ideas, their goods, and their pathogens to new lands and cities that had never previously encountered them. The lack of natural immunity to the transported bacteria, viruses, and parasites gave rise to epidemics that swept through entire populations and spelled disaster for all levels of societies.

This fascinating anthology compiles the tragedies witnessed by those who lived through such plagues and pandemics, from the 5th-century BC Athenian Plague to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Before delving into the written testimonies for each of the 22 pandemics, Peter Furtado provides concise overviews detailing each pathogen’s aetiology and epidemiology, the number of mortalities, and the measures and treatments used in response. The anthology draws on a plethora of literature, such as diary-entries recording the horror of witnessing large-scale sickness and death, medical compendia referring to ancient theories of disease, and heartbreaking accounts from autobiographies, as well as public legislation, poetry, and plays.

A common thread throughout many of the testimonies that pre-date the invention of the scientific method is the underlying need to make sense of the invisible, deadly enemy. Within the ancient world, ill-fortune was overwhelmingly ascribed to divine vengeance, with one account of the Antonine Plague claiming the pestilence emerged from a desecrated temple of Apollo. Later, as medieval Europe and Asia were haunted by the horrors of recurrent bubonic plague outbreaks, heightened moral anxieties consolidated the belief among Christians that plague was punishment from God for sinfulness. In turn, both religious and medical accounts offered moralistic teachings entwined with ineffective medicinal recipes and treatments.

The voices of antiquity share observations on symptoms and means of transmission, even though, until the Renaissance, medical treatment relied primarily on Galen’s humoral theory, involving blood, bile, and phlegm. Furtado emphasises how outbreaks of disease are intricately linked with poor sanitation and military activity, as was the case for returning Crusaders who introduced leprosy to the West, and Spanish influenza, which was ‘a sad footnote to the more public tragedy of the Great War’. The testimonies trace the development of preventative measures, such as quarantine and social distancing, as well as practical methods for coping with mass burials.

Through tracing the social, political, and public-health responses evoked by disease-related disasters across the globe, readers can empathise with individuals separated by centuries and oceans. In a letter written during the Black Death, the Italian poet Petrarch despairs that ‘houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead, and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth’: a picture which resonates strongly in today’s world.

Review by Florence Chilver.
Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic: Voices from History, Edited by Peter Furtado, Thames & Hudson, £20, Hardback, ISBN 978-0500252581.