Death and Disease in the Medieval and Early Modern World

Edited by Lori Jones and Nühket Varlık

We are thrilled to welcome you both to the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by introducing our readers to your book?

The overall goal of Death and Disease is to challenge our modern ideas about what disease and death looked like and was experienced in the past. Many of us tend to either overlay a very modern understanding of medicine’s relationship to disease and death onto the past, or, worse and as is often done in the popular media, assume that disease and death were so ubiquitous in the past that people were simply used to it even if they couldn’t possibly understand it “correctly” (meaning, in our modern terms). In this volume, our contributors have presented some very different ways of exploring how our medieval and early modern ancestors diagnosed, explained, and coped with disease and death. In some cases, the contributors have re-analyzed and re-interpreted primary sources –not just medical texts but also images, inquests, musical notations, spiritual texts, inquest records, and judicial archives – that have long been discarded or ignored and shown their tremendous value for offering completely new ways of understanding how the daily management of disease and death played out in the past. They also force us to rethink our modern tendency to see secular, spiritual, and “magical” medicine as distinct and separate, and to value one approach over the others; in the past, the lines between these forms of care and healing were not only blurred but in some cases non-existent.  Finally, the volume also offers chapters that demonstrate how modern scientific techniques, when used alongside more traditional historical sources, can generate new ways to understand death and disease in the past. At a methodological level, the volume showcases how novel approaches to the study of the human past can be achieved by respectful and responsible collaborations between historians and scientists to correct imbalances/inequality often present in this type of collaboration.

Has what we know about death and disease changed over time? 

Even though our volume looks at a broad geographic area and time period that can perhaps roughly be categorized as the premodern Mediterranean world, we saw tremendous overlaps and continuities in how people understood, studied, and experienced death and disease. As readers will see across the pages of this volume, whether it is about the tragic death of Sister Eufemia dei Magni, from the monastery of Santa Maria Maddalena, at the age of 27 in southwest Milan or the heart-wrenching lines written by the Anatolian mystic-poet Şeyyad Hamza (fl. 1348), who lost his children to plague during the Black Death, our collective effort was to get as close to the world of our historical actors as made possible by our sources. Our investigations confirmed our belief about shared experiences of death and disease across the premodern Mediterranean world. 

How were the contributors chosen?

About half of the contributors made presentations at a trio of special sessions organized in honour of Dr Ann G Carmichael at the American Association for the History of Medicine annual meeting in 2017, and agreed to adapt versions of their presentations into chapters for this book. Once we had a sense of how the various themes were coming together, we directly solicited chapters from scholars who were collaborating with Ann in some way, whose research fit a noticeable gap in the volume’s scope, or both. And of course Ann herself has a chapter in the book, although we managed to keep the dedication secret from her until the very end.

How did the outbreak of COVID, resulting in a global pandemic, affect you as you were researching this book? 

We were, of course, planning this book long before COVID was on the scene, and already had a publishing contract for it. COVID actually hit shortly after we were formally contracted to produce the volume. The ripple effects of pandemic-related shutdowns included some contributors losing access to the library resources that they needed, or simply not having the time or capacity to work according to our original schedule given that they suddenly were working from home and caring for children and so on. We ended up being delayed by almost a year and unfortunately had a couple of contributors withdraw along the way. But we were also lucky, if we can call it that, as the additional time not only made the final contributions that much stronger but also allowed some of the chapter authors to reflect with some direct and pertinent first-hand knowledge on the similarities and dissonances between our modern experiences with death and disease and those of our ancestors in the distant past. 

Did your research discover anything about music playing a role in death or dying?

Yes, Elaine Stratton Hild’s chapter is a remarkable reflection on the role that music played in bedside liturgies for the dying. By walking us step-by-step through a singular manuscript copy of a Franciscan liturgy for the end of life, she reveals the integral place that music – and especially song – held both in shaping the way the liturgy itself was performed and in generating a sense of beauty and community among those who stood around the bedside of the dying person to assist their soul to move into the next world. The dying person was also a key participant in the liturgy, of course, and the songs performed by those around the bedside would have helped to make the process of death more comforting for everyone present as it was accompanied by beautiful sounds and the promise of a patiently welcoming God. 

What does the image on your cover depict?

The cover image is a death card from luxuriously gilded and hand-painted Visconti Tarot set created by Bonifacio Bembo in first half of the fifteenth century for Filippo Maria Visconti, a duke of Milan. It shows a skeleton mounted on a horse, using a scythe to cut down people being trampled underfoot. At least one of those people appears to be wearing a crown of some sort, and so the message is likely that death eventually comes for us all, regardless of our station in life. There are actually three different sets of Tarot cards associated with the Viscontis, and each one includes a skeleton-themed death card. But this particular one was by far our favourite, for both its visual appeal and dramatic expression. That the image was offered open-access by Yale’s Beinecke Library was also a bonus.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

As the editors of the volume, we have long been working on questions related to death and disease in the late medieval and early modern worlds, despite our focus on different geographical areas, and respective academic fields of study. Through the years, as we kept our interaction and collaboration (and friendship!) going and learned more about each other’s work, we came to realize how, despite the seeming differences between the societies we each work on (Western Europe/France & England and the Middle East/Ottoman Empire, respectively), they had striking similarities to each other, and could help us understand one through the lens of the other. For example, ideas about how to explain, diagnose, and record diseases, as well as ways of coping with, preventing, and healing them could be surprisingly similar whether one looked at 14th century London or Paris or Cairo or Istanbul. Similarly, people experienced death in interestingly similar contexts, turning to similar sources of comfort at the end of their life. Over the years, we came to identify overarching themes in the study our materials and developed new insights as we discovered such similarities and differences. These insights into the study of past societies led us to formulate new questions, examine our own sources more closely, and explore new methodologies. The volume is thus a product of our convergent areas of interest and curiosity. 

This volume was been in the making for several years. When we started our search for a publisher, we saw that York Medieval Press’s new Health and Healing series had just been launched and decided that it would be perfect for our work. It seems that the stars were aligned for this to come together at a very specific moment in time…just as the world began to face a new wave of death and disease. We were both immensely content that the contributors to our volume shared our enthusiasm to study the human past and together they enriched our own understanding of death and disease in the past by writing excellent chapters. 

Our hope is to inspire the study of death and disease in the past to specialists in other areas of the globe. To this end, we have organized a roundtable in the upcoming medievalists conference (Kalamazoo): Death and Disease in the Long Middle Ages: Why “Beyond Europe” Matters. 

Death and Disease in the Medieval and Early Modern World

Perspectives from across the Mediterranean and Beyond

Edited by Lori Jones and Nükhet Varlık

Health and Healing in the Middle Ages
£75.00 / $115.00, 9781914049095
November 2022
York Medieval Press



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LORI JONES is a medical historian at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her research focuses primarily on plague texts and images.

NÜKHET VARLIK is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research focuses on disease, death, medicine and public health in the Ottoman Empire.