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This module examines how historians identify the diseases responsible for historical epidemics. Focusing on the difficulty identifying the pathogens responsible for the epidemic most commonly known as the Black Death and the outbreak of epidemic disease in New England in 1616-19 that devastated Native American populations, it highlights the uncertainties and challenges involved in using historical diseases as comparisons for COVID-19. An emphasis is on learning how to analyze historical evidence and ascertain how these retrospective diagnoses are used to make arguments about health and illness in our present moment.

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Appreciate how the experience and description of illnesses are embedded within particular historical and cultural contexts
  • Identify the methods through which scientists and historians seek to identify the microbial causes of historical illnesses
  • Analyze the narrative and rhetorical methods through which these historical events are made relevant for present-day public health crises


  1. Reading: Phyllis Pobst, “Should We Teach That the Cause of the Black Death Was Bubonic Plague?,” History Compass
  2. Reading: Excerpt from Boccaccio’s Decameron
  3. Reading: John S. Marr and John T. Cathey, “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616-1619,” Emerging Infectious Disease 
  4. Reading: Excerpt from George Parker Winship, ed., Sailors Narratives of Voyages along the New England Coast, 1524-1624 
  5. Reading: Excerpt from Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan
  6. Video: Watch 9:30 – 30:00 of PBS We Shall Remain, Episode 1: After the Mayflower 
  7. Questions to Consider:
  • Reading the historical texts (Boccaccio, Sailor narrative, & Thomas Morton), what do you notice about how they describe disease? Do they focus on symptoms? Do they suggest causes? What do you find challenging or exciting about these texts?
  • What counts as legitimate evidence for Pobst and Marr & Cathey? Can you point to sections of Boccaccio or Thomas Morton that seem to offer real evidence for their conclusions?
  • How and where are historical texts used alongside scientific / medical research? When they conflict, which takes precedence?
  • What strategies do Pobst and Marr & Cathey demonstrate for making historical texts “useful” for diagnosis?
  • Why do these authors believe that accurate retrospective diagnosis is important?
  • After watching PBS’ We Shall Remain, how is epidemic disease used to explain facets of Native American and Colonial History? How dependent are these sorts of narratives upon an accurate identification of the cause of the New England epidemics? How would the story here change if we assumed the disease was smallpox, influenza, typhus, or leptospirosis?
  • How confident are you, after our lectures, readings, and video, that the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis and the New England epidemics by leptospirosis? If less than 100%, what additional evidence would you want before you accepted it totally?

Locate a recent analysis of COVID-19 that makes a historical comparison in a major newspaper or magazine. In 3 – 4 double-spaced pages, answer some of the following questions about your chosen text:

  • What epidemic / pandemic is being used as a point of comparison? How do they identify and describe the pathogen responsible?
  • Why was this disease chosen (i.e. similar symptoms or etiologies? virulence or mortality? social or cultural history of policy or public response?)?
  • What argument do they use this historical outbreak to make? Who is this argument aimed at (i.e. a popular audience, medical / scientific, policy)?
  • What types of evidence (archival or published texts, film, multimedia, scientific studies or medical experiments) do they use to buttress their argument?
  • Regardless of whether or not you are convinced, would you say that this is a “good” comparison? I.e. do they have sufficient evidence to make their argument?
  • Are there historical epidemics that you know about that could serve as a better point of comparison? Why? How?