Each of the themes named in the title of the course identifies a source of collective fear. This is understandable: they might lead to individual death or defilement. They also turned over time into a basis of a social pathology which led to cultural and political conflicts and upheavals. This lecture course investigates these fears within a critical time frame, which saw the introduction of frightening diseases into European society:
• leprosy and smallpox(12th c)
• plague (14th c)
• syphilis (15th c).
All seemed contagious before a theory of contagion had been formulated. They provoked European medical authorities and governmental agencies to develop both theories of contagion and plans to contain it. While such ideas and strategies served to protect European populations, they could also be deployed to marginalize those deemed “naturally” polluting members of society, such as Jews, sexual deviants (homosexuals and prostitutes), and heretics.
The course will investigate these ideas in a threefold way: through medical and public health literature; through a Christian religious rhetoric which, on the one hand, sought to give succor to the afflicted and, on the other, shaped disease into a cosmic view of man’s sin; through, finally, governmental responses which attempted to build processes of containment, the basis of modern policies of contagion control.
The course will thus interrogate the rights of the individual, whether deemed diseased or polluting, against the purity claims of the larger society. The relevance of this pre-modern history to our modern medical (AIDS, SARS, FLU, etc.) and social (same sex marriage, immigration) concerns will also be investigated.
Readings will be drawn from a range of contemporary sources (in translation) and a series of provocative books and articles. They are designed not only to help you learn about the period under investigation but also to think about the larger issues within a broader global and chronological frame. Each class period will devote time to the discussion of these sources and issues.
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