History Today subscription
Plague victims in Perugia.

Plague victims in Perugia. Miniature from the manuscript of the vernacular text La Franeschina, Italy, 16th century.

Plague and Prejudice

Epidemics spread mistrust, as communities seek to blame their plight on outsiders or those at the margins of society. Yet the historical record reveals that outbreaks are more likely to bring people together than force them apart.

After more than half a century without a major epidemic in the West, the shock of the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the early 1980s triggered sudden interest in the socio-psychological reactions to disease. A wide range of commentators across scholarly disciplines and the popular press searched for historical parallels to AIDS and readily found them. Their message tended towards the simplistic, the anachronistic and the one-dimensional, resisting almost any attempt to detect change over time or find significant differences between epidemic diseases. In his study Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath (1989), the prominent Italian historian of early modern Europe, Carlo Ginzburg, concluded that: ‘The prodigious trauma of great pestilences intensified the search for a scapegoat on which fears, hatreds and tension of all kind could be discharged.’ Cultural historians Dorothy Nelkin and Sander Gilman claim that ‘blaming has always been a means to make mysterious and devastating diseases comprehensible and therefore possibly controllable’. The historian of medicine Roy Porter agreed with Susan Sontag that when ‘there is no cure to hand’ and the ‘aetiology ... is obscure ... deadly diseases spawn sinister connotations’.  More recently, from Haiti, which endured a devastating earthquake followed by an outbreak of cholera in 2010, Paul Farmer in Haiti After the Earthquake (2011) proclaimed: ‘Blame was, after all, a calling card of all transnational epidemics.’

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email digital@historytoday.com.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week