(Coronavirus) A Little Historical Primer on Modern Plagues (Paul Slack)


For general readers and students, “Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health” is an old article here by Paul Slack, author of Plague: A Very Short Introduction. I’m linking it here . The article came out in 1988 as part of a special issue in the journal Social Research responding to the AIDS pandemic.

Without the miasma of anti-liberalism, Slack confirms Foucault’s basic contention in Discipline and Punish that modern disciplinary society has the Black Death and then the great plagues of the early 17th c. as a basic point of origin. Some of the material organized by Slack sounds very familiar today.

The article is schematic in its approach, not historiographical per se. Much of the information is new to this reader. I am surprised or maybe not, for instance, that discussions in Critical Theory of Foucault overlook this kind of historical contextualizing, particularly in relation to the scope of death. The material on Christian religion is very interesting for reasons that go well and beyond divine providence and theodicy and that touch upon ritual life and ethics and relations to state authority and medical science.

Slack’s article is broken into sections:

–Introduction (historical data, unparalleled scope of plagues and spread)

–Interpretive Systems (religious and medical, and public authority/social control)

–Resistance (popular, religious, and mercantile involving unlawful sick people breaking quarantine, public gatherings, drinking, funerals, religious processions, religious notions that public health regulations are impious, that they impede Christian charity and good works or, alternatively, commerce)

–Social Dichotomies (systems of social control and order beyond simply containing the contagions; fear of plague worked hand in hand with fear of the poor)

–Right or Wrong (policy and moral accounting)

–Postscript (relating to science and democracy and public debate today as brakes to prejudice and stigma)

[[Social Research Vol. 55, No. 3, In Time of Plague (AUTUMN 1988), pp. 433-453 (21 pages)]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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