May 10, 2020
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Samuel Kohn's book 'Epidemics'
By investigating thousands of descriptions of epidemics reaching
back before the fifth-century-BCE Plague of Athens to the distrust
and violence that erupted with Ebola in 2014,
Epidemics challenges a dominant hypothesis in the
study of epidemics, that invariably across time and space,
epidemics provoked hatred, blaming of the 'other', and victimizing
bearers of epidemic diseases, particularly when diseases were
mysterious, without known cures or preventive measures, as with
AIDS during the last two decades of the twentieth century.
However, scholars and public intellectuals, especially post-AIDS, have missed a fundamental aspect of the history of epidemics. Instead of sparking hatred and blame, this study traces epidemics' socio-psychological consequences across time and discovers a radically different picture: that epidemic diseases have more often unified societies across class, race, ethnicity, and religion, spurring self-sacrifice and compassion.
"Epidemics, conceived in the influenza scare of 2009, is in itself a commemoration of all the deadliest plagues to have afflicted our species. ... covering the major infections from 430 BC, through the Black Death (134751) and syphilis (14945), to cholera (1832 onwards), smallpox in nineteenth-century America, plague in India since 1894, yellow fever (Southern USA), and the Great Influenza, with a coda on HIV/AIDS ... Cohn's aim is not just to tell their stories (although there are stories aplenty), but to tell them from a new perspective." - Anne Hardy, Times Literary Supplement
"In a number of distinct contexts, Cohn uncovers responses of sympathy and mutual assistance crossing class, religious, gender or ethnic divides. These take very different forms - some grassroots movements and some organized centrally. Here, as in all other parts of the discussion, Cohn establishes that responses to epidemics are complicated by the specific nature of the disease as well as the context in which it develops. The mentalities, memories and manifestations of each varied. By reintroducing a number of complexities and ambiguities into the study of epidemic disease, Cohn illustrates the richness of the comparative history of disease, and his work will likely act as a point of reference and inspiration for many years to come." - Jane Stevens Cranshaw, Oxford Brookes University, European History Quarterly
"The historical breadth of this book, with its meticulous attention to varied sources and contexts, is simply breathtaking. ... This book will interest students of the history of medicine as well as anyone seeking a historical and comparative exploration of epidemics. It is dense and detailed reading ... this book will appeal chiefly to specialists at the graduate level and above." - CHOICE
Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Professor of Medieval History, University of Glasgow
Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Over the past sixteen years, he has focused on the history of popular unrest in late medieval and early modern Europe and on the history of disease and medicine. Cohn's latest two books are Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns (2013) and Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (OUP, 2010).
Over the pass seventeen years I have specialized in the history
of popular unrest in late medieval and
early modern Europe and in the history of disease and medicine. My current project on the emotional
histories of epidemics and pandemics from Antiquity to Ebola brings these two interests together. I
am now beginning the third year of a three-year ‘Major Research Fellowship’ from the Leverhulme
Trust to complete my project ‘Epidemics: hate and compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS’. In
addition, I have recently collaborated with medical anthropologists on comparative projects on
cholera, plague and Ebola, and with geneticists on the Black Death and syphilis and gonorrhoea in
I am currently an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at
the University of Edinburgh, an Honorary Fellow of the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at
the University of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Recent and Current projects
I was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and other smaller grants to complete two
Popular protest in late medieval Europe: Italy, France, and Flanders Medieval Sources Series.
Manchester University Press (October, 2004), xxiv+389 pp. ISBN 0 7190 6730 8 hardback; 0
7190 6731 6 paperback and
Lust for Liberty: The politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425 (Cambridge, Ma.,
Harvard University Press, 2006). ISBN 0-674-02162-2; x+376 pp. Paperback edition (2008) 978-
I have been funded by the Wellcome for three projects from 1998 to 2013, which resulted in the
publication of two monographs and numerous articles:
The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (London:
Edward Arnold, May, 2002 in the UK and Oxford University Press, in the US), xii+318 pp. ISBN
0 340 70646 5 (Hb); ISBN 0 349 70647 3 (Pb) and
Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010). ISBN 978-0-19-957402-5; xiv+342 pp. Paperback edition (2010) 978-0-19-
with Guido Alfani, 'Households and Plague in Early Modern Italy' Journal of Interdisciplinary
History, xxxviii:2 (Autumn, 2007): 177-205.
‘The Black Death and the burning of Jews’, Past & Present, no. 196 (August, 2007): 3-36.
'Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague', Medical History
Supplement no. 27: Pestilential Complexities: Understanding the Medieval Plague, ed. Vivian
Nutton (London, 2008), pp. 74-100.
‘Pandemics: Waves of Disease, Waves of Hate from the Plague of Athens to A.I.D.S’, Historical
Research, 85, no. 230 (2012), 535-55.
‘The Historian and the Laboratory: the Black Death Disease’, in Fifteenth Century: XII: Society
in an Age of Plague, ed. Carole Rawcliffe and Linda Clark, (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2013), pp. 1-
Plague and Violence against Jews’, Early Modern Workshop: Jewish History Resources, Volume
10: Jews and Violence in the Early Modern Period, an on-line publication open access (2013).
‘Renaissance hate and disease in European perspective’, in Emotions, Passion and Power in
Renaissance Italy, ed. Fabrizio Ricciardelli and Andrea Zorzi (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 2015).
I received a project grant from the ESRC which resulted in a monograph and several articles:
Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns (Cambridge University Press, 2012) ISBN
9781107027800; xiv+376 pp.
‘La pecularità degli Inglesi e le rivolte del tardo medievo’, in Rivolte urbane e rivolte contadine
nell’Europa del Trecento: un confronto, ed. Giuliano Pinto and Monique Bourin (Florence,
2008), pp. 37-51.
‘Revolts of the Late Middle Ages and the Peculiarities of the English’ in Survival and Discord in
Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of Christopher Dyer, ed. R. Goddard, J. Langdon, and
Müller (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 269-85.
‘The “Modernity” of Medieval Popular Revolt’, History Compass 10/10 (2012): 731-41.
‘Paradoxes: Rich and Poor in Western Europe and the Political Consequences, ca. 1300-1600’,
in Handling Poverty in Medieval Europe, ed. Sharon Farmer (forthcoming 2015).
‘Enigmas of communication: Jacques, Ciompi, and the English’, in La comunidad medieval
como espera publica spacio público, ed. Hipólito Rafael Oliva Herrer, Vincent Challet, Jan
Dumolyn, and María Antonia Carmona Ruiz (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2014), pp. 227-47.
‘Authority and Popular Resistance’, in The Oxford Handbook of early modern European
History, 2 vols, ed. Hamish Scott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
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