Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Victor W. Marshall
This thesis examines the sociological significance of the plague. My sense of the need for this inquiry developed as I realized that most accounts of the plague -- which described the hysterical, bizarre, and irresponsible behaviours of its victims and survivors --- failed to analyse how they were possible. This oversight implied that those who responded to the plague were hysterical and eccentric. This work refutes that view. It demonstrates how those who responded to the plague were oriented social actors whose behaviours were understandable in certain contexts. The crisis which the plague vested upon the members of the medieval society becomes apparent as we recall Socrates' approach to death in the Phaedo. He conetnded that philosophy was a preparation for death. He taught that a good death was the achievement of a lifetime's work. Death from the plague, on the other hand, was too sudden, violent, and pervasive for its victims and survivors to respond to it reflectively. Instead, they used simple and practical methods to resist the threat of obliteration which the plague posed to their social order. An example of this can be found in the plague chronicle; its writers depicted their experience with the disease for their own benefit and that of their successors. In the Middle Ages, the city facilitated the spread and transmission of the plague in the same way that it does today. Its denizens' responses to it were interesting insofar as the plague was an undesirable condition with which they were forced to deal. Their admission or negation of its presence within a community --- and their ensuing responses to it --- constituted a various constructions of the plague. These were generated according to the members' regular and sustained usage of awareness contexts and boundary maintaining devices to produce their social order. The plague influenced the production of anti-Semitism. It precipitated genocidal campaigns initiated by medieval actors against the Jews of Western Europe. This reflected the medieval actors' need to account for the plague in a realistic way: it enabled them to orient to the source of the plague by facilitating their identification and location of some wordly agents who were allegedly responsible for it. In the Middle Ages, the Jews became metaphors for the affliction of plague in a way that is analogous to the modern practitioner's usage of germs. Although this destructive orientation to others is understandable as an attempt to eliminate the threat which anomaly poses to the social order, it is not recommended; genocide constitutes an asocial treatment of others. Philosophy, which comprises a positive relation to disorder, is invoked as an alternative to genocide. The macabre art of the Middle Ages which illustrated and described disease, decomposition, and triumph of death reflected the repulsive, degenerative, and collectively fatal aspects of the plague. It is usually thought of as morbid, devitalized, and excessively sensual. However, in light of the commitment which it showed to the body, it can be viewed as medieval society's attempt to conquer death and regenerate life. This thesis demonstrates the social character of the behaviours of those who faced the plague. It makes sense of their efforts to preserve their social order against its impending destruction. It contributes to our understanding of a struggle for survival that opposed the silence of death with the reachievement of purpose and thereby differentiated its constituents from the thoughtless oblivion of a plague.
Spinola, Teresa, "Plague and Society: A Phenomenological Analysis of The Black Death" (1981). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3092.