The Center for Medieval Studies and the Renaissance Society of America, was pleased to host a timely discussion on “Plagues, Pandemics, and Outbreaks in History.” The event was co-sponsored by Fordham’s Departments of Art History and Music, Classics, and History.

The event featured two separate sessions over the course of the day. In the morning, three eminent scholars reflected on the impact of pandemics on their own periods, and what those past episodes tell us about our current predicament. 

Hannah Marcus of Harvard University, a historian of science and medicine, discussed how disease impacts are ideas of longevity. Whereas past plagues have devastated populations of young people, today’s epidemic is most deadly for the elderly. In both cases, pandemic challenges us to reconsider our attitudes toward different age groups.

The social historian Colin Rose of Brock University discussed how our biased view of the past can impact our approach to the present crisis. For example, evidence of the aerosol spread of COVID-19 was initially dismissed due to its superficial similarities to early medieval “miasma” explanations of the spread of the bubonic plague. 

Finally, Lisa Sousa of Occidental College discussed approaches to disease among the indigenous Mexicans of colonial New Spain. Outsiders, particularly Spaniards, were considered potential carriers of sickness, as were those who broke social taboos. Additionally, what we might consider the social consequences of pandemic, such as fear, were considered aspects of the disease itself.

Following their discussion, graduate students from Fordham university discussed the challenges of teaching about plague and disease, especially in the midst of our own pandemic, and strategies they’ve used to overcome them. For more about their discussion, visit Fordham History Department’s blog (we’ll link when their post is available).

All three scholars agreed that plagues and pandemics exert a heavy influence on the sociocultural practices of the societies they impact, both in the short and long term. What those impacts will be on our own society, however, is still to be determined.