Profs and Pints DC presents: “Lessons from the Black Death,” a look at late medieval cities’ evolving responses to the bubonic plague, with Abigail Agresta, assistant professor of history at George Washington University and scholar of the histories of cities and of public health.
As we seek to chart a path forward after more than two years of pandemic, there are lessons to be learned by looking back at how people in the past responded to outbreaks of disease. Join Dr. Abigail Agresta, who has taught courses on medieval urban history, religious history, and history of medicine, for a fascinating look at the history of efforts to stave off the Black Death. It’s a talk that might shatter your assumptions about how people lived in the past and how past pandemics ran their course.
Dr. Agresta will ground her talk in a discussion of the conditions of late medieval cities. Despite having rudimentary sewer systems and open-air slaughterhouses, they actually were not nearly as filthy as many of us assume. Recent research has shown that the municipal officials overseeing them worked hard to keep streets, waterways, and markets clean, well-ordered, and pleasant for city inhabitants and regarded “healthscaping” as essential to civic honor.
When the Black Death spread across Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, the arrival of this unknown and devastating disease prompted panic, confusion, and disagreement over its cause. Government officials and medical professionals initially responded to it by employing their existing practices of public health: hygienic measures that assumed cleanliness would keep disease at bay.
Bubonic plague kept coming back, however, with new, smaller outbreaks occurring every couple of decades in Europe throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As they learned to live with the plague, municipal officials began to change their approach to plague prevention. They adopted measures based on a contagion model, moving away from the goal of creating a healthful environment in favor of “disease tracing” and restrictions on travel and other human movement to keep the plague away.
Dr. Agresta’s forthcoming book, The Keys to Bread and Wine: Faith, Nature, and Infrastructure in Late Medieval Valencia, examines how the Valencian city government understood and responded to the plagues, droughts, floods, and locust swarms that struck their city. Her upcoming talk will give you a sense of how much or little has changed when it comes to cities’ responses to major threats, and will offer assurances that, as bad as things were over the past two years, cities have endured much worse. (Advance tickets: $12. Doors: $15, or $13 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later. Please allow yourself time to place any orders and get seated and settled in. Please bring proof of vaccination as it may be required in response to local infection rates.)
Image: People of Tournai, Belgium, bury victims of the Black Death in this 1353 miniature by Pierart dou Tielt.