John Aberth holds a PhD in medieval history from the University of Cambridge and is the author of numerous books on disease and the Middle Ages, including Plagues in World History. He lives in Roxbury, Vermont.
List of Illustrations
The Challenge of Interpreting Plague Treatises
The Poison Thesis: A New Paradigm for Plague Medicine?
Origins of the Poison Thesis
The Poison Orthodoxy
The Artificial Poison Conspiracy
Universal and Remote Causes
Particular and Near Causes
Bodily Symptoms—Bubonic Plague
Bodily Symptoms—Pneumonic Plague
Bodily Symptoms—Septicemic Plague
Predispositions to Plague
Prevention as a Public Good
Prevention by Social Class
Principles of the Plague Cure
Doctors Who Treated Themselves
Audience and Reputation of Plague Doctors
Epilogue: Plague’s Verdict on Medieval Medicine
Appendix: Table Sources
About the Author
Aberth, author of several books on the Black Death, including Plagues in World History, here explores the world of plague doctors through 240 plague treatises written by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim doctors dating from 1347 to 1450. He lays out the works' structures and contents, using tables to display data such as the authorities authors explicitly relied upon, including their own experiences. The four main chapters echo the structure of many treatises, detailing causes, environmental signs, and individuals' symptoms, prevention, and treatments. Aberth's aim in doing so is partly to correct some popular and even professional misconceptions about the era's medical understandings and practices. For example, he reduces medieval humoral theory to one of several physiological paradigms physicians applied and explicitly avoids ahistorical judgments. In concluding, he highlights the societal impacts of medical advice, such as to flee stricken areas. This volume is aimed at informed readers not seeking an introduction but rather a detailed explication of the first century of Western medical theories and practices dealing with the second plague pandemic. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, interest in this work may extend beyond academic or medical circles. Recommended. General readers, advanced undergraduates through faculty, professionals.
In his new book, Doctoring the Black Death, John Aberth shows how the plague, which wiped out between thirty and fifty percent of the European population between 1347 and 1351 (DeWitte 2014) led to a similar dichotomy among doctors of the era. Aberth has created a repository of first-hand accounts from medieval doctors, a persuasive argument that the horrors of the plague created new ways of thinking about medicine. The book prompts a sobering reflection that, however advanced we think modern medicine to be, when faced with new threats such as Covid, looking to the past can provide eerily prescient comparisons.
Within its limits as a careful description of these pest tracts, this is an excellent piece of work….Some of these tracts were written ostensibly for a private patron, others to warn or inform the community as a whole. But it is not clear how most were produced or circulated or how some appear to have gained greater authority than others. How this information was produced and transmitted in manuscript may differ from what came after 1470 (one of the reasons why very few authors later than 1450 are discussed here)…. Although comparisons are made with later bacteriology and particularly with plague outbreaks in the early twentieth century, an opportunity is missed to investigate Fracastoro’s dependence on his medieval predecessors in the development of his theory of contagion from the 1520s onward. But this is but one of the many questions that this valuable collection of primary material now allows us to pursue further.
This is an important and timely book. Drawing on 240 plague treatises, John Aberth offers an illuminating look at how medieval doctors made use of their firsthand observations of the Black Death. Full of new insights about how medieval doctors understood the causes of and treated the plague, this book also challenges critical commonplaces that see medieval approaches to the plague as entirely indebted to traditional knowledge and authorities. Instead, the study reveals the extent to which many medieval doctors also derived their knowledge of the plague from empirically based observations. Both deeply erudite and engaging, Doctoring the Black Death should be mandatory reading for all those interested in medical history, social responses to pandemics, and medieval culture.
In this lucid and engaging book, John Aberth thoroughly describes and contextualizes how physicians understood and responded to the Black Death. Aberth’s copious excerpts from a wide variety of plague treatises vividly illustrate the complexity and resilience of medieval medicine in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis.
A welcome reassessment of Europe’s medical responses to the dreadful ‘emerging disease’ of the late Middle Ages: plague. Drawing on over 200 medical treatises from across Europe, including Muslim Spain and the writings of Jewish physicians, John Aberth examines how medical practitioners (some of whom died carrying out their duties) addressed questions of the pandemic’s cause and formulated protocols for describing symptoms, preventative measures, and therapies. Engagingly written, Aberth’s invaluable book illuminates the early years of the Second Plague Pandemic.
10/1/21, Hold The Line with Buck Sexton: John Aberth was interviewed for a program on the great pandemics of history and the book was mentioned.