"New Research on the Black Death at the Intersections of Science and History" Response by Elizabeth Elaine Tavares

[On January 29, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory and Medieval Studies co-organized a lecture and roundtable to mark the inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe, “Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death” (ed. Monica H. Green) and to explore ways to promote research at the intersections of science and the humanities. Robert Hymes (Columbia) gave an opening lecture, “Diagnosing Plague in 13th-Century China: Medical Practitioners, Medical Terminology, and the Problem of Identifying a New Disease,” and later joined a panel of Illinois faculty in discussing ways to advance research that crosses the boundaries between the sciences and the humanities. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student affiliate Elizabeth Elaine Tavares.]

New Research on the Black Death at the Intersections of Science and History
Written by Elizabeth Elaine Tavares (English)


Two events on January 29 demonstrate the possibilities for collaborative research at the intersection of science and the humanities: a lecture by Robert Hymes (Columbia) on the origins of plague in China in the thirteenth century, and a panel discussion by UIUC faculty from the sciences and humanities, reflecting on new findings on the Black Death published in the inaugural issue of the UIUC-based journal, The Medieval Globe.

The first event was a talk given by Robert Hymes, at 4:00pm, in Lincoln Hall, Room 1090. His talk, “Diagnosing Plague in 13th-Century China: Medical Practitioners, Medical Terminology, and the Problem of Identifying a New Disease,” revisited and extended his earlier hypothesis, published in the special issue on the Black Death in The Medieval Globe. In his talk, Hymes corroborated the findings of microbiologists Yujun Cui et al, that plague’s causative organism, Yersinia pestis, originated in the Qinghai/Tibet plateau between 1142 and 1339. Hymes argued that the plague-causing pathogen can be traced to the Mongol invasion of the Chinese Tangut Xia state in the early thirteenth century. His rationale is, in part, that this period is coterminous with the westward conquests of the Shah of Iran’s empire and the increased associations of the Mongols with disease in the written record.


As a scholar of Renaissance England—a place and time where the Black Death is a common feature in the literary archive—the aspect of this research that I found most illuminating was Hymes’ observation that while the virulence and mortality rates of plague in China are comparable to those in western Europe, the pandemic did not make the same kind of “splash” in the written record in China. Hymes theorized that this had to do with traditional approaches to diagnosis in Chinese medicine rather than something fundamentally different about the disease itself. Using the physician Li Gao’s accounts of the Mongol siege of Keifeng in 1233 C.E. as an emblematic case, Hymes sketched the expansive or additive Chinese method of diagnosis that prevailed in the period: namely, that new symptoms, such as swelling lymph nodes or the appearance of pustules (the classic markers of plague) were worked into already existing models of known diseases and treatments, rather than being viewed as signs of a new disease. This is to say, Chinese physicians functioned on the principle that diseases could evolve, that different symptoms could evince an already known underlying condition, and that all symptoms for a particular condition need not present in order to suggest a diagnosis. This is a fundamentally different habit of mind to approaching diagnosis and treatment, one predicated on grouping new symptoms as part of pre-existing diseases rather than constantly coming up with new treatments or the possibility of a new disease.

Fig. 2: Clerics with leprosy receiving instruction from a bishop. 

Historicizing treatment in this way allows us to see that there was no available vocabulary or model for dealing with something like an epidemic at that time among the Chinese. Thus, Hymes contended that it is only by describing diseases in their own historical and cultural terms that we can develop “bridging concepts” to talk about a common object like Yersinia pestis moving amongst different parts of the medieval world. (Certainly if anything is made evident from the new research on the Black Death and Hymes’s research it is that the medieval world was a far more connected place than hitherto assumed). Using this methodology, Hymes demonstrated the significance of 1230s Chinese records of an illness referred to as “bull neck” or “head like an ox.” By analyzing the recorded treatments as a clue to the targeted symptoms, Hymes demonstrated that “bull neck” seems to refer to diphtheria until the 1230s, when the list of treatments comes to include purging ruptures of what he assumes are pustules—and thus strongly indicative of the plague. 

Pivotal was Hymes’ methodological observation that the critical conversation surrounding the Black Death has moved toward discussing disease in its own historical and cultural terms. In doing so, critics avoid “historical symptom matching and retrospective diagnosis” that “telescope time and ignore evidence of change” in the diseases themselves.This allows scholars to take into account the ways we know pathogens to behave and evolve from epidemiologists and bioarchaeologists. His talk provided an example of the kind of research that can be produced through collaboration between scientists and humanists, which was the topic of discussion for the 7:30pm panel, “The Black Death and Beyond: New Research at the Intersections of Science and the Humanities” in the Knight Auditorium of the Spurlock Museum. With opening remarks by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s director, Susan Koshy, and moderated by the journal’s founding executive director, Carol Symes, the panel brought together researchers from diverse parts of campus, including History, Genomic Biology, Engineering, and Veterinary Medicine among others. 

After brief remarks from each of the panelists, the conversation focused on the exigency of this Black Death research, from which two threads emerged. The first was the articulation of the questions that remain and the new problems we face in light of the sequencing of Yersinia pestis. Richard Tapping (Medical Microbiology) has been “playing with the plague bacterium in [his] lab for ten years now” to study its mechanisms for skirting treatment. He and Rebecca Lee Smith (Epidemiology) both spoke to the fact that plague still exists in many places, including the U.S., in human and animal populations. Today, Yersinia pestis is ravaging certain animal populations but not cropping up in human communities with the same kind of mortality rate of previous outbreaks. With few pandemics to study, scientists are hungry for data to answer questions concerning changes in hosts, heterogeneous immune responses, and the acquisition of virulence factors. For Craig Koslofsky (History) these questions seemed importantly prescient in light of the growing resistance to vaccination and the measles outbreak at Disneyland this month.

The second thread in the conversation addressed the idea of using the Black Death as a pedagogical tool. Antoinette Burton (History) sketched in her remarks the ways in which plague helps model the globalized nature of history as “plague moves in and out of the time-space of the global.” It also models to faculty how to collaborate with scholars “well beyond their ken” in the ongoing effort in “re-suture connections between our research and our teaching.” The case of the Black Death, in its demonstration of “global connection, disruption, and breakdown,” demonstrates to students and wider publics “the urgency of the long explanatory view of current problems and difficult questions.” Based on these observations, Gene Robinson (Entomology) and the other panelists quickly sketched as a group a team-taught class organized around three historically and biogenetically informed cases: interspecies contact with Neanderthals, the Indo-European migration problem, and the Black Death. It became quickly evident through the panelists’ discussion that plague provides an excellent case for demonstrating responsible scholarship, the two-way street of interdisciplinary research, the exigency of teaching the medieval world, and how to use historical thinking to make informed choices.

Combined with the publication of the inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe, these events were timely not only in the quick but thorough response to the mapping of the Yersinia pestis genome, but also in the wake of President Obama’s announcement during last week’s State of the Union of the Precision Medicine Initiative, which will include the mapping of thousands of genomes. The discussions were an inspiring reminder of the work that still needs to be done on fundamental questions that inform our thinking of history and its implications. For example, plague outbreaks routinely shut down the Renaissance playhouses, shaped the way that particular theatrical marketplace developed—a marketplace that conditioned the output of William Shakespeare, an output still considered a signifier of what we associate with high art. It was also an inspiringly dramatic example of the ways in which historical thinking very immediately impacts our present.

Note: In her opening remarks, Dr. Symes observed that the issue has already made an immediate impact on the web. The historical initial “C” reproduced in Figure 2, often mistakenly described as an image of plague victims despite the fact that the text surrounding it refers to leprosy, has been correctly reattributed by Wikipedia but not yet by the manuscript’s housing institution, the British Library. Image citation: The British Library, Record Number: c6541-07, Shelfmark: Royal 6 E. VI, Page Folio Number: f.301.

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