Contagion: Perspectives from Pre-modern Societies

Publication Year



Edited by Lawrence I. Conrad, Ph.D. 1981

Contagion - even today the word conjures up fear of disease and plague and has the power to terrify. The nine essays gathered here examine what pre-modern societies thought about the spread of disease and how it could be controlled: to what extent were concepts familiar to modern epidemiology present? What does the pre-modern terminology tell us about the conceptions of those times? How did medical thought relate to religious and social beliefs? The contributors reveal the complexity of ideas on these subjects, from antiquity through to the early modern world, from China to India, the Middle East, and Europe. Particular topics include attitudes to leprosy in the Old Testament and the medieval West, conceptions of smallpox etiology in China, witchcraft and sorcery as disease agents in ancient India, and the influence of classical Greek medical theory. An important conclusion is that non-medical perceptions are as crucial as medical ones in people’s beliefs about disease and the ways in which it can be combatted. Today we may not believe in the power of demons, but the idea that illness is retribution for sin retains great power, as was shown by the popular reaction to the spread of AIDS/HIV, and this is a lesson from the past that the medical profession would do well to heed.


Introduction; China: Epidemics, weather and contagion in traditional Chinese medicine, Shigehisa Kuriyama; Dispersing the foetal toxin of the body: conceptions of smallpox aetiology in pre-modern China, Chia-Feng Chang; The threatening stranger: Kewu in pre-modern Chinese paediatrics, Christopher Cullen; India: Notions of contagion in classical Indian medical texts, Rahul Peter Das; Does ancient Indian medicine have a theory of contagion?, Kenneth G. Zysk; Middle East and Europe: Old Testament leprosy, contagion and sin, Elinor Lieber; Did the Greeks have a word for it?, Vivian Nutton; A 9th-century Muslim scholar’s discussion of contagion, Lawrence I. Conrad; Contagion and leprosy: myth, ideas and evolution in medieval minds and societies, François-Olivier Touati; Index.

Aldershot and Burlington, VT
Cloth: 9780754602583; ebook: 9781315259505