Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS

ISBN : 9780198819660

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.
656 Pages
156 x 234 mm
Pub date
Apr 2018
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  • A study of the history of epidemics, stretching from the 5th century BCE to the 2014 Ebola crisis
  • Challenges the dominant hypothesis that epidemics invariably provoke hatred, blaming of the 'other', and victimizing bearers of epidemic diseases
  • Investigates thousands of descriptions of epidemics throughout history, including the Black Death, Cholera, Smallpox, and AIDS
  • Offers a new view of the Black Death and how short-lived were its effects of hate, violence, and division

By investigating thousands of descriptions of epidemics reaching back before the fifth-century-BCE Plague of Athens to the distrust and violence that erupted with Ebola in 2014, Epidemics challenges a dominant hypothesis in the study of epidemics, that invariably across time and space, epidemics provoked hatred, blaming of the 'other', and victimizing bearers of epidemic diseases, particularly when diseases were mysterious, without known cures or preventive measures, as with AIDS during the last two decades of the twentieth century.
However, scholars and public intellectuals, especially post-AIDS, have missed a fundamental aspect of the history of epidemics. Instead of sparking hatred and blame, this study traces epidemics' socio-psychological consequences across time and discovers a radically different picture: that epidemic diseases have more often unified societies across class, race, ethnicity, and religion, spurring self-sacrifice and compassion.


Introduction: Hate, Politics, and Compassion

Part One: Antiquity and the Middle Ages
1: Epidemics in Antiquity: The Moral Universe and Natural Causes
2: Ancient Epidemics: What the Oracles Had To Say
3: Black Death Persecution and Abandonment
4: Mechanisms for Unity: Saints and Plagues

Part Two: Early Modernity
5: Syphilis: Naming and Blaming?
6: Plague Spreaders

Part Three: Modernity: Epidemics of Hate
7: Cholera's First European Tour: The Story in the British Isles
8: Cholera on the Continent and in America
9: Cholera Violence: An Italian Story in Comparative Perspective
10: Cholera: A Comparative History of Disturbance
11: Smallpox Cruelty: The Case of North America
12: Smallpox and Collective Violence
13: Smallpox Violence in Victorian Britain

Part IV: Modernity: Plagues of Politics
14: Plague since 1894: India
15: Plague Beyond India
16: Myths of Plague

Part V: Modernity: Plagues of Compassion
17: Yellow Fever: Stories from Philadelphia and Memphis
18: Yellow Fever: The Broader Picture
19: The Great Influenza: A Forgotten Pandemic?
20: Quarantine and Blame
21: A Pandemic of Compassion
22: Comparative Vistas (I): The Great Influenza
23: Comparative Vistas (II): Beyond the Battlefields
24: Conclusion
25: Epilogue. HIV/AIDS: An Epidemic of Hate, Compassion, and Politics
Bibliography and Appendix of Newspapers

About the author: 

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Over the past sixteen years, he has focused on the history of popular unrest in late medieval and early modern Europe and on the history of disease and medicine. Cohn's latest two books are Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns (2013) and Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (OUP, 2010).

"Epidemics, conceived in the influenza scare of 2009, is in itself a commemoration of all the deadliest plagues to have afflicted our species. ... covering the major infections from 430 BC, through the Black Death (134751) and syphilis (14945), to cholera (1832 onwards), smallpox in nineteenth-century America, plague in India since 1894, yellow fever (Southern USA), and the Great Influenza, with a coda on HIV/AIDS ... Cohn's aim is not just to tell their stories (although there are stories aplenty), but to tell them from a new perspective." - Anne Hardy, Times Literary Supplement

"In a number of distinct contexts, Cohn uncovers responses of sympathy and mutual assistance crossing class, religious, gender or ethnic divides. These take very different forms - some grassroots movements and some organized centrally. Here, as in all other parts of the discussion, Cohn establishes that responses to epidemics are complicated by the specific nature of the disease as well as the context in which it develops. The mentalities, memories and manifestations of each varied. By reintroducing a number of complexities and ambiguities into the study of epidemic disease, Cohn illustrates the richness of the comparative history of disease, and his work will likely act as a point of reference and inspiration for many years to come." - Jane Stevens Cranshaw, Oxford Brookes University, European History Quarterly

"The historical breadth of this book, with its meticulous attention to varied sources and contexts, is simply breathtaking. ... This book will interest students of the history of medicine as well as anyone seeking a historical and comparative exploration of epidemics. It is dense and detailed reading ... this book will appeal chiefly to specialists at the graduate level and above." - CHOICE

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