Marks of Contagion: The Plague, the Bourse, the Word and the Law in the Early Modern Mediterranean 1720-1762

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation is a study of two episodes of mass mortality, in Marseilles during 1720–21, and in Aleppo, Syria, during 1761–62. Linked by trade ties, missionary outreach, and diplomatic contacts, the two cities were a microcosm of eighteenth-century relations across the Mediterranean. In these relations the diagnosis of bubonic plague was a significant factor. I argue in my dissertation that despite the contemporary belief that the Levant was a source of plague, the connection between plague epidemics in Aleppo and in southern France was almost certainly literary rather than biological, except in the sense that they both reflected sickness and death from diseases prevalent in the Mediterranean basin.

For centuries, bubonic plague has been the very emblem of epidemic disease. The mass mortality associated with it led to major historical shifts. But what was the plague? In my dissertation I argue that during the early-modern period, diagnosis of plague, and the quarantine institutions which oversaw it, arose from fierce struggles for economic, political and social dominance. They bisected the Mediterranean and contributed substantially to the present-day conceptual divide between ‘East’ and ‘West.’ Rather than indicating the presence of a bacterium, I argue that reference to plague in early-modern sources are more plausibly understood as a legal category being transformed by the nation-state. The aversion of Ottoman officials to quarantine until the mid-1800s was not ‘fatalism,’ but rather a desire to protect their economic and political interests.

Diagnoses of plague that mandated quarantine were the product of a long documentary chain involving communication across several thousand miles and translation between many languages and genres. In the complex interaction between biological reality and its representations, there was ample room not only for misunderstanding, but also for deliberate distortion. And yet, diagnostic institutions like quarantine and the sanitary cordon had the power not just to specify death's official meaning, but potentially to change the rate at which it actually occurred. My dissertation therefore emphasizes the ecology of plague in Mediterranean cities, meaning not only the natural setting, but also social, economic and political relations, and the literature that provided their vocabulary.

Last updated on 04/23/2020