The study of the Black Death has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. A flurry of articles (including J. Hatcher, 'England in the aftermath of the Black Death', Past and Present 144 (1994)), a selection of sources (R. Horrox, The Black Death (1994)) and two syntheses (this one and M. Ormrod and P.
Over the past few years, no doubt as a consequence of HIV/AIDS newspapers have been full of stories about the threat from plagues some such as TB and bubonic plague appear like spectres from the past while apparently new diseases such as E-coli and the Ebola virus threaten to run riot in the future. It is against such a background that Christopher Wills has published Plagues.
The history of public health has been a flourishing field in the last three decades. Yet despite a spate of excellent monographs about various epidemic diseases and many good collections about health and disease in Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Latin America, as well as Europe and North America, the most recent textbook on the history of public health is four decades old.
Why attempt the history of suicide? Leaving aside the rare episodes of mass self-destruction by such people as sect members and warriors determined to die rather than fall into the hands of their enemies, suicides have never made up more than a tiny m inority of any known human population. A rate of 25 per 100,000, or one in four thousand, counts as high in the late twentieth century.
Early-modern Europe (here covering the years from 1492 to 1750) was constantly beset by plagues of all kinds. Scarcely a year passed in western Europe until the 1720s without an outbreak of ‘pestilence’, and scarcely a decade without a major epidemic that killed ten, twenty, or even forty per cent of the community. Expansion brought with it new dangers.
Until Irina Metzler published her first volume on medieval disability in 2006 (1), the lives of the physically impaired in the Middle Ages had received relatively little scholarly attention.
‘In me,’ wrote Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg in the early 11th century: