Epidemics and Ideas

Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence

Paul Slack & Terence O. Ranger



From plague to AIDS, epidemics have been the most spectacular diseases to afflict human societies. This volume examines the ways in which these great crises have influenced ideas, how they have helped to shape theological, political and social thought, and how they have been interpreted and understood in the intellectual context of their time. The first chapters look at classical Athens, early medieval Europe and the Islamic world, in order to establish the intellectual traditions which influenced later developments. Then there are contributions on responses to different epidemics in early modern and modern Europe, where western notions of 'public health' were defined: and chapters on the ways in which disease was perceived outside Europe, in India, Africa and the Pacific, where different intellectual traditions and different disease patterns came together. The final chapters brings us back home, looking at the ways in which policies towards AIDS have been formulated in the 1980s and drawing striking parallels as well as contrasts with the social construction of disease in the more remote past.


...a remarkably cohesive and delightfully variegated book that brings medical and biological history into firm and fruitful contact with intellectual and social history....This is, in short, a splendid book--subtle, informed, sophisticated and coherent. It shows how successfully the social history of epidemics has come of age in recent years. - Journal of Social History


Paul Slack is a historian, formerly Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University Oxford and Principal of Linacre College.

Terence O. Ranger was a prominent African historian, focusing on the history of Zimbabwe. His work spanned the pre- and post-Independence period in Zimbabwe, from the 1960s to the present. He died in 2015.