Pasts Imperfect (10.21.21)
Ancient Medicine, Global Pandemics, and More
This week, Monica Green discusses the history of medicine and reviews a new global history of disease. Plus we dig into medieval migration to Malta, a Latinx take on Plautus, the oldest known drawing of a ghost, and more…
Monica Green is a historian of medicine, who focuses both on European medicine and global diseases. In 2009, together with bioarchaeologist Rachel E. Scott, she created a course, “Global History of Health,” which surveyed eight of the world’s most important diseases, from malaria up to HIV/AIDS. Crucial to her work have been the “medieval” diseases of leprosy and plague. A collection she edited in 2014, Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, remains available open-access. She tweets (@monicaMedHist) about medical history, global health, and equity within academe. She wrote the newest LARB #PastsImperfect column reviewing Kyle Harper’s new book, Plagues Upon the Earth. Below she provides a short bibliography for starting the study of the premodern medicine.
The history of medicine in the premodern period is booming, for two reasons. First, the digital revolution has transformed access to hitherto unpublished premodern materials as libraries big and small throughout the world digitize their manuscript holdings. There are unheard-of opportunities to explore topics that would have been hard to research, or never even conceived as historical questions, including phenomena crossing traditional cultural or linguistic borders (see especially Yoeli-Tlalim 2020). New work is underway retrieving the corpus of the 11th-century medical translator, Constantine the African, who rendered Arabic medical material into Latin. Petros Bouras-Vallianatos (2021) has reconstructed the history of sugar, originally an import from Indonesia, in Byzantine medicine. The materiality of pharmaceutics is also allowing new investigation of the continuities and ruptures in the transposition of Galenic medicine into the Americas (De Vos 2020). Various projects seek to exploit digital modes of publication and textual analysis to expand materials available, such as Current Issues in Ancient Medicine (CIAM), a new platform for critical editions, translations, and commentaries. Thanks to Digital Humanities projects, the extraordinary corpora of Islamic, Sanskrit, and Chinese texts are accessible now in ways that would have been inconceivable a couple of decades ago.
The second big transformation in premodern medicine comes from the genetics turn in disease history. Although paleopathology (the study of ill-health from the evidence of bones) has long enabled investigation of conditions that leave visible lesions on the skeleton or teeth, such as leprosy and nutritional deficits, genetics can now retrieve molecular fragments of the microbes that cause disease. This work has changed our understanding of plague, whose causative organism, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, has now been retrieved from over six dozen sites ranging from the Late Neolithic up the 18th century. Knowing that it is plague is now less important than knowing what kind of plague it is. The foundations have been laid to trace the paths of plague strains during both the 1st and 2nd Plague Pandemics. Continually updated bibliographies on the two premodern plague pandemics allow students and researchers to watch these developing fields in almost real time, as genetics, climate science, pollen studies, and documentary history join forces.
Comparable work is now being done on other diseases, allowing new insights into conditions ranging from leprosy to smallpox to intestinal parasites, in many cases in ways that move beyond regions where centuries-long archival practices have focused attention. Although work on the history of public health and health institutions (hospitals and leprosaria) has drawn primarily on traditional documentary and archaeological sources from Europe and the eastern Mediterranean (e.g., Varlık 2015, Coomans 2021), it is likely that a new generation of researchers will pick up the challenge thrown down by literary historian Robert Hymes, working on Song China, and Gérard Chouin, an archeologist-historian working on late medieval and early modern West Africa, who have—using very different approaches—recovered lost histories of apparent epidemics in those regions.
New work stresses the need to understand the pervasiveness of health concerns in religious conceptions (e.g., Stearns 2021, Leja 2022), and the role of political concerns in response to health crises (e.g., Varlık 2015, Barzilay 2022). All this new work has been enabled by networks connecting researchers together, including the Society for Ancient Medicine and Pharmacology and the MEDMED (“Medieval Medicine”) listserv. The COVID-19 pandemic has given new urgency to expansive investigations of the premodern period, which can model not simply how global framings of the history of health and disease can reveal disease emergence, but also how fruitful dialogue across humanistic and scientific disciplines can be achieved.
Arıcı, Mustakim, trans. Faruk Akyıldız, “Silent Sources of the History of Epidemics in the Islamic World: Literature on Ṭāʿūn/Plague Treatises,” Nazariyat: Journal for the History of Islamic Philosophy and Sciences 7, no. 1 (April 2021), 99-158.
Barzilay, Tzafrir. Poisoned Wells: Accusations, Persecution, and Minorities in Medieval Europe, 1321-1422 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022 [forthcoming]).
Bouras-Vallianatos, Petros. “Cross-Cultural Transfer of Medical Knowledge in the Medieval Mediterranean: The Introduction and Dissemination of Sugar-Based Potions from the Islamic World to Byzantium,” Speculum 96, no. 4 (October 2021), 963-1008.
Chouin, Gérard. “Reflections on Plague in African History (14th–19th c.),” Afriques 9 (2018).
Coomans, Janna. Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
De Vos, Paula S. Compound Remedies: Galenic Pharmacy from the Ancient Mediterranean to New Spain (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).
Fancy, Nahyan, and Monica H. Green. “Plague and the Fall of Baghdad (1258),” Medical History 65, no. 2 (April 2021), 157-177.
Flemming, Rebecca. “Pandemics in the Ancient Mediterranean World,” Isis Critical Bibliography, Special Issue on Pandemics, ed. by Stephen P. Weldon and Neeraja Sankaran. 2021.
Hymes, Robert. “A Tale of Two Sieges: Liu Qi, Li Gao, and Epidemics in the Jin-Yuan Transition,” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 50 (2021), 295-363.
Jones, Lori, and Nükhet Varlık, eds. Death and Disease in the Long Middle Ages (York: York University Press, 2022 [forthcoming]).
Leja, Meg. Embodying the Soul: Medicine and Religion in Carolingian Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022 [forthcoming]).
Lo, Vivienne, and Michael Stanley-Baker, eds. Routledge Handbook of Chinese Medicine (London: Routledge, 2022).
Ramos, Christina. “Beyond the Columbian Exchange: Medicine and Public Health in Colonial Latin America,” History Compass 19 (2021), e12682.
Roosen, Joris, and Monica H. Green. “The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of COVID-19 – Bibliography,” initially posted 04 May 2020, with subsequent updates,
Sarris, Peter. “Climate and Disease,” in A Companion to the Global Early Middle Ages, ed. Erik Hermans (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2020), pp. 511-537.
Sarris, Peter. “New Approaches to the ‘Plague of Justinian’,” Past and Present, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtab024.
Savage-Smith, Emilie. “Medicine in Medieval Islam,” in: The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 2: Medieval Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Michael H. Shank (Cambridge: Cambridge Univerisity Press, 2013), pp. 139–167.
Stearns, Justin. “Disease: Confronting, Consoling and Constructing the Afflicted Body,” in: Bloomsbury Cultural History of Medicine, 6 vols. (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), vol. 3, ed. Iona McCleery, pp. 63-85.
Tresso, Claudia Maria. “Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s ‘Prayer of Damascus’: A Window on to Damascus in the Hell of the Black Death (Part 1),” Kervan: International Journal of African and Asiatic Studies 25, no. 1 (2021), 131-161.
Varlık, Nükhet. Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Yoeli-Tlalim, Ronit. ReOrienting Histories of Medicine: Encounters along the Silk Roads (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
Seen in the Twitterverse
At Notre Dame’s Medieval Studies Research Blog, Mohamad Ballan looks at economic migration in the medieval Mediterranean world, the relationship between medieval Malta and North Africa, and Muslim migrants to the island.
On the SCS Blog, Krishni Burns speaks to her student at UIC Honors College, Luana Davila, about her adapted and produced a version of Plautus’ Casina in the style of a telenovela. They also chat with the play’s director, Amy Gerwert Valdez, a Theater Directing major at Columbia. Davila notes:
The project aimed to tie together patriarchal society in ancient Rome and in Latinx cultures (or in the case of this production, Mexico). My play was adapted in such a way that the original storyline was changed as little as possible, proving that its seemingly ridiculous events made for a believable tale in modern Mexico. This was done to show how interconnected the two cultures are, even though they existed thousands of years apart.
Over at Peopling the Past, they have a new interview with Cora Beth Fraser, founder of Asterion, “a new organization dedicated to representing and celebrating neurodiversity in Classics.” They also have a very Halloween-appropriate interview on researching monstrosity in Greek literature with Fiona Mitchell.
Over at The Guardian, Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, notes that the discovery of the earliest knowing etching of a ghost is an “absolutely spectacular object from antiquity” overlooked until now. It is a sad, “miserable” male ghost on a Babylonian clay tablet from 3500 years ago.
Lectures and conferences we’d attend
On Friday (October 22, 2021) at 4 pm ET, Najee Olya will be giving a UVa Archaeology Brown Bag on “Exiting Frank M. Snowden, Jr.’s Anthropological Gallery: Toward an Understanding of Visual Representations of Africans in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting”. Register here.
Check out the virtual conference “Dyes in History and Archaeology” (DHA40) at the British Museum, London, UK, November 15-19, 2021. Register here.
The virtual conference “Classics in Colonial Cities” is from November 1-3, 2021 and will focus on areas of the British Commonwealth—Australia, New Zealand and South Africa—and “how classicism contributed to the development of cities and the creation of civic life and identities.” Register here.
New Online Journal Issues curated by @YaleClassicsLib
Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 80, No. 2 (October 2021) NB: ““Syrians call you Astarte … Lycian peoples call you Leto”: Ethnic Relations and Circulating Legends in the Villages of Egypt.” by Philip A. Harland
Pecia Vols. 22 (2019) and 23 (2020) Le manuscrit médiéval: texte, objet et outil de transmission
Revue d'Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques Vol. 67, No. 1 (2021)
Journal of Urban Archaeology Vol. 4 (2021) #openaccess NB: “Historical Trajectories of Palmyra’s Elites through the Lens of Archaeological Data” by Olympia Bobou, Rubina Raja & Iza Romanowska Palmyra Portrait Project
Scrinium Vol.17, No. 1 #openaccess (2021)
Neotestamentica Vol. 55, No. 1 (2021)
Renaissance Studies Vol 35, No. 5 (November 2021) NB: “How Gabriel Harvey read tragedy” by Tania Demetriou
Journal of Cultural Heritage Vol. 51 (September–October 2021)
Early Medieval Europe Vol. 29, No. 4 (November 2021) Church and property in the early Middle Ages
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Thanks for reading and see you next week!