Nadine Metzger: Poisoning, Ergotism, Mass Psychosis. Writing a History of Ancient Epidemics Beyond Infectious Diseases. [Abstract]

For the last 100 years, the modern concept of epidemics as contagious diseases caused by pathogenic agents or microorganisms entering the body has not only dominated present thinking about epidemics but highly influenced historiographical study of past disease as well. In the case of Greek and Roman antiquity, this led to extensive and thorough scholarly work on epidemics fitting the pattern of infectious diseases while incompatible cases were put aside notwithstanding that by ancient definition they were epidemics of the same quality: illness that affects many individuals of the same community at the same time. This includes cases retrospectively explained as mass poisoning, ergotism, and mass hysteria. This article discusses the methodological problem of disparate definitions of modern and ancient epidemics and argues for broadening the source base in the study of ancient epidemics to include accounts of diseases that do not fit into the modern mould of infectious disease. To demonstrate the benefit of this suggestion, two disregarded later ancient epidemics drawn from relatively unknown patristic sources are introduced, which have been explained as fungal poisoning, ergotism, or mass psychosis in the past.

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