Plague: A Very Short Introduction

Paul Slack
Very Short Introductions
  • Explores the historical impact of the plague over the centuries, focussing on how people coped with the disease and how governments fought it
  • Examines the impact of plague on settlements, local histories, art and literature, and in film
  • Considers the modern day resonance with issues such as AIDS and swine flu
  • Reflects upon the impact it has had on modern ideas of public health

Throughout history plague has been the cause of many major catastrophes. It was responsible for the Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague of London in 1665, and for devastating epidemics much earlier and much later, in the Mediterranean in the sixth century, and in China and India between the 1890s and 1920s. Today, it has become a metaphor for other epidemic disasters which appear to threaten us, but plague itself has never been eradicated. 
In this Very Short Introduction, Paul Slack explores the historical impact of plague over the centuries, looking at the ways in which it has been interpreted, and the powerful images it has left behind in art and literature. Examining what plague meant for those who suffered from it, and how governments began to fight against it, he demonstrates the impact plague has had on modern notions of public health and how it has shaped our history. 


1: Plague: What's in a name?
2: Pandemics and epidemics
3: BigiImpacts: The black death
4: Private horrors
5: Public health
6: Enduring images
7: The lessons of histories
Further reading


Paul Slack is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern Social History at Oxford University, and author of a classic study of The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge 1985, OUP 1990). He has written books on urban history and poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and essays on the history of disease and the environment over longer periods, and been editor of the journal Past and Present. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and was Principal of Linacre College, Oxford, until his retirement in 2010.

"Slack takes a thematic approach to the global and comparative history of plague that provides a wonderful survey for the newcomer to the topic, while still providing food for thought to readers already well versed in the literature." - Patrick Wallis, LPS

"This book is not a textbook on Pasteurella pestis. Rather, using the disease it causes as a link, the text has the potential to attract the interest and attention of a wide range of readers, encompassing historical, social, geographical and economic factors and the role they played in changing European and wider social development. In these days of internet access, soundbites and the decline of text on paper, this book presents an excellent opportunity for those who wish for an absorbing and educational narrative, contained within an extremely portable package and with no risk of the battery losing its charge at an inconvenient moment." - The Bulletin of The Royal College of Pathologists, April 2013