Historians are joining with scientists in a breakthrough approach

Historians in the News
tags: Science, genetics, Disease

Historians in Lab Coats”—that’s the new epithet for the molecular biologists who have taken the limelight in the field of disease history.1 This role is not limited to just recent disease history, where, for example, genetics is playing a major role in tracking the evolution and pathogen mutation in still-unfolding epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, cholera, or Ebola. The most notable work, rather, has focused on my period, the Middle Ages. True, this research is usually still heralded in the “Science” section of major newspapers, rather than the “Culture” section, where historical studies (assuming they are reviewed at all) would normally appear. But the fact that history has come to be defined by breakthroughs made by scientists, rather than historians as traditionally defined, signals a sea change. One particular breakthrough in 2011 actually elicited an editorial in the New York Times,2 which celebrated the complete sequencing of the bubonic plague bacterium from 14th-century remains in London, an achievement that finally closed decades of debate about what “really” caused the Black Death.

Welcoming a new player onto the field of historical research is not something we traditionally trained historians always do gracefully. But I would argue that we should embrace our new sister discipline. Despite the hype in the popular press, the molecular genetics work that has contributed so substantively to the history of plague and several other disease histories hasn’t pushed us off the playing field. It has an inherent limit: genetics tells us only the story of the pathogen.3 It does not tell us how, in the case of plague, a single-celled organism came to be dispersed over half the globe in the medieval period (and around the whole globe by the beginning of the 20th century). It does not tell us about all the animal species—not simply rats, but also marmots and gerbils and maybe camels and storks—that helped transmit the organism thousands of miles from its place of origin. Least of all does it tell us how people reacted to such massive devastation, or why they looked to the stars, or local minority groups, in their search for explanations or objects of blame.

I have just finished editing a collection of essays unlike anything I ever imagined possible. The essays constitute the inaugural issue of a new journal, The Medieval Globe, and are devoted to the topic of the Black Death.4 The collection brings together an interdisciplinary team of scholars: archeologists, microbiologists (one of whom has expertise in biosecurity), a biological anthropologist, and historians with geographical specialties ranging across Afroeurasia. ...

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