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CALL.01.02.2021: [PANEL 3] Infection, Pandemic and the Borders of Medicine - San Francisco (CA, USA)








Viral infections are so wedded to our modern disease ontologies that most histories of ancient medicine start by marking their absence. In fact, plagues and pandemics sit uncomfortably within the history of Greek and Latin medicine. As Vivian Nutton states, there was “little or no connection between the practitioners of ancient medicine and public health” (2000: 70–71). Yet, as Parker (1983), Nutton (1983) and Leven (1993) discuss, ancient authors—medical and otherwise—did promote various theories to account for widespread illnesses, whether attributing them to miasma, environmental effects, noxious airs or simple transmission by contact. Greek responses to plagues included purifications, paeans, temple dedications and ritual sacrifice. Roman sources, too, describe historical pandemic-averting measures, whether scapegoating, religious propitiation, or the importation of foreign rites. Multiple ancient authors cast pandemics as external infiltrations, attacks on the homeland from without. Yet such foreign pathogens quickly become endemic, as diseases get woven into the fabric of local life, social systems and physical architecture (cf. Sallares 2002). Plagues reveal the connections between European, Asian and African populations and highlight the shared world of antiquity. They also show how local communities face and conceptualize these diseases in unique ways.

This panel seeks to open up the discussion of plagues and pandemics relative to the faults lines that have opened in light of our current crisis. The plagues of antiquity have been characterized as “great levelers” (Scheidel 2017) and empire enders (Harper 2017), as well as windows into the shared community of human vulnerability. Yet our own pandemic has highlighted how unequal the distribution of such vulnerability can be and who makes money from public medical crises. Livy catalogues the various social and economic vectors along which plagues travelled in antiquity. Does recent work on bioarcheology and genetic analysis (Grmek 1991; Salares 2006; McCormick 2006; Morelli, Song, and Mazzoni et al. 2010; Gourevitch 2011) or cross-cultural comparative analysis (Little, ed. 2012) help us further understand how pandemics affected (and assembled) different social and ethnic groups? Plagues are public health crises that move through political, religious, economic and social geographies. In so doing, they dismantle any notions of medicine as a field in isolation and instead disclose the connectedness of bodies, cultures and spaces. Michelakis (2019) and Gardner (2019) have recently examined the compression between narratives of disease and social unrest in Greek and Latin literature respectively. Raza Kolb (2021) has traced the modern (post-)colonial compression of terrorism and disease. What other phenomena in antiquity get expressed in terms of plagues? Do ideas get described this way? Ideologies? Religions? Piracy? Can these disease-like phenomena be treated by (quasi-)medical means? What can the relative absence of medical responses to plagues say about the recognized limits of physicians and other healers? Can the chaotic transmission of (mis)information through current media channels help us rethink the implied rationality of the “medical marketplace” model? How do physicians treat the trauma pandemics leave behind? What forms of therapy supplemented or dovetailed with medicine? Proposed papers are welcome to address these issues or any other topics related to plagues and pandemics, including, but not limited to, questions of race, ethnicity, slavery, disability, gender and migration.

Please send abstracts of 500 words maximum (excluding bibliography) by email to Colin Webster at by February 1, 2021. Ensure that the abstracts are anonymous and follow all guidelines for individual abstracts (see the SCS Guidelines for Authors of Abstracts). The organizers will review all submissions anonymously, and their decision will be communicated by March 15, 2021.

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