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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919

Syphilis, 1494–1923

Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914

Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

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“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Herbarius. Patauie impressus: [Johann Petri], anno domi[ni] [et]cetera lxxxv [1485]. From the holdings of Center for the History of Medicine/Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School
Herbarius. Patauie impressus: [Johann Petri], anno domi[ni] [et]cetera lxxxv [1485]. From the holdings of Center for the History of Medicine/Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School.

In the late medieval and early modern periods, the term “pestilence” was principally used to refer to two diseases new to post–classical Europe: plague and syphilis. The apparent novelty of these diseases presented significant problems to the educated physicians who were the students and interpreters of the canonical medical works of Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna. In this medical tradition, there were no new diseases: all illness could be interpreted in terms of traditional humoral theory and Galenic physiology and medicine.

But the devastating and rapid mortality of plague and the gruesome symptoms and intermittent course of syphilis did not fit easily with traditional descriptions of pestilential fever. While some learned physicians tried to fit these diseases into the Galenic system, others developed new ideas about how to categorize and understand them. The plague and syphilis treatises in Harvard’s Contagion collection show the efforts of some 15th- and 16th-century authors to make sense of “pestilence” in this context.


Incunabula are the very first printed books and other materials produced between the invention of the European printing press in the mid-15th century and the year 1500. Many early printed books were reproductions of existing manuscripts, and the first printed plague treatises were based on hand-copied works made after the first massive epidemic of plague, later known as the Black Death, swept through Europe in 1347–50.

Because plague returned repeatedly over the next three centuries, the plague treatise became one of the most common genres of printed medical work, with new books and new editions of old books appearing with each major epidemic. These treatises included compilations of advice and recipes for preventing and curing plague aimed at a vernacular audience as well as works by learned physicians discussing plague’s etiology, symptoms, progress, treatment, means of transmission, and place in the taxonomy of symptoms and disease.

Syphilis, known most commonly as “the French disease” or the “pox,” seems to have arrived in Europe with the return of sailors from the New World in 1493, after many printing presses had been well established. Thus, works on syphilis were among the very first published medical works produced by contemporary authors. As in the case of plague, publications related to syphilis were often aimed at a vernacular audience as well as an elite audience of educated physicians, and looked at causes, cures, and prognosis.

Incunabula in the Contagion Collection

Harvard’s online Contagion collection, which includes about 30 digitized incunabula, contains some of the most widely distributed historical works relating to the plague and to syphilis. Among them are Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de Pestilentiali Scorra in both Latin and German, published ca. 1496; Jean Jasme’s (Joannes Jacobi’s) Regimen Contra Pestilentiam (in Latin, ca. 1482, and in a rare French edition, ca. 1481), on the plague; and Marsilio Ficino’s Consiglio contro la pestilenza, ca. 1481.

The collection also includes several important late medieval and early modern medical reference works, including Niccolò Falcucci’s Sermones medicinales septem, ca. 1490; Gilles de Corbeil’s treatises on urine and the pulse; and the first printed illustrated medical book, Fasciculus medicinae, printed in 1491. Herbals in the collection include Herbarius, published by Johann Petri in 1485, and a first edition of the Hortis Sanitatis, published in 1491.

In addition, the Contagion collection includes such digitized manuscripts as a Miscellanea medica thought to be compiled by a German medical student, containing texts originating from the universities of Montpellier and Salerno ca. 1200; and a collection of medical treatises and prescriptions written by an English scribe, ca. 1450.

Other important early printed books related to syphilis and the plague that were published between 1500 and 1600 include Ulrich von Hutten’s work on guaiac wood “that healeth the French Poxe,” published in 1539; Girolamo Fracastoro’s 1546 work on contagion as well as a 1720 edition of his 1530 work on syphilis; Paracelsus’s work Für Pestilentz published in 1554; and William Clowes’s A Briefe and Necessarie Treatise, Touching the Cure of the Disease Called Morbus Gallicus, published in 1585.


Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. For additional materials on the topic “Early Printed Books” click here; for materials on the topic “Pestilence” click here; or searcheither term in the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

Concepts of Contagion and Epidemics
Domestic Medicine
The Great Plague of London, 1665
Humoral Theory
Public Health
Syphilis, 1494–1923


Solomon M. Hyams Collection
   [Miscellanea medica], [ca. 1450]
William Norton Bullard Collection
   [Collectanea medica], [ca. 1450]


Clowes, William. A Briefe and Necessarie Treatise, Touching the Cure of the Disease called Morbus Gallicus, or Lues Venerea, by Vnctions and other Approoued Waies of Curing. Nevvlie Corrected and Augmented by William Clowes of London, Maister in Chirurgerie. London: Printed [by Thomas East] for Thomas Cadman, Dvvelling in Paules Churchyard, at the Signe of the Bible, 1585 (London: Thomas East).
Falcucci, Niccolò. Sermones Medicinales Septem. Venice: Bernardino Stagnino, 1490-1491.
Ficino, Marsilio. Consiglio Contro la Pestilenza. Impressum Florentie: Apud Sanctum Iacobu[m] de Ripolis, [not before 6 July] Mcccclxxxi, 1481.
Fracastoro, Girolamo. De Sympathia et Antipathia Rerum Liber Unus; De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis et Curatione Libri III. Venetiis: Apud heredes Lucaeantonij Iuntae Florentini, MDXLVI [1546].
Fracastoro, Girolamo. Syphilis. Londini: Apud Jonam Bowyer, MDCCXX [1720].
Gilles, de Corbeil. De Urinis. Padua: I[m]pressus [per] M[a]g[ist]r[u]m Matheu[m] Cerdonis [de] Uuindischgrecz, die 12 Iulli, Anno 1483.
Gilles, de Corbeil. De Pulsibus. Padue: per Magist[rum] Mattheu[m] Cerdonis de Uuindischgretz, die Ianuarii Anno Domini 1484.
Grünpeck, Joseph. Tractatus de Pestilentiali Scorra sive Mala de Franzos. Nuremberg: Kaspar Hochfeder, 1496 or 1497.
Grünpeck, Joseph. Tractatus de Pestilentiali Scorra. German. Nuremberg: Kaspar Hochfeder, 1496 or 1497.
Herbarius. Patauie Impressus: Johann Petri, Anno Domi[ni] [et]cetera LXXXV [1485].
Hortus Sanitatis. Mainz: Jacob Meydenbach, 23 June 1491.
Hutten, Ulrich von. Of the VVood called Guaiacum, that Healeth the Frenche Pockes, and also Helpeth the Goute in the Feete, the Stoone, the Palsey, Lepree, Dropsy, Fallynge Euyll, and Other Dyseases. Londini: in Ædibus Thomas Berthes…, 1539.
Joannes Jacobi. Regimen Contra Pestilentiam. French. Paris: Ulrich Gering, ca. 1481.
Joannes Jacobi. Regimen Contra Pestilentiam. Nuremberg: Conrad Zeninger, ca. 1482.
Ketham, Joannes de. Fasciculus Medicinae. Impressum Venetijs: per Johanne[m] & Gregoriu[m] Fratres de Forliuio, Anno D[omi]ni Millesimo Quadringe[n]tesimo Nonagesimo Primo Mensis Iulij die XXVI [1491 July 26].


The following sources were used in writing this page.

Arrizabalaga, Jon, Henderson, John and French, Roger. The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe. New York and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Ballard, James F. A Catalogue of the Medieval and Renassiance Manuscripts and Incunabula in the Boston Medical Library. Boston: Boston Medical Library, 1944.
Boeckl, Christine. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. Kirksville, MO.: Truman State University Press, 2000.
Buhler, Curt F. “Scientific and Medical Incunabula in American Libraries.” Isis, Vol. 35, No. 2. (Spring, 1944), pp. 173–175.
Chase, Melissa P. “Fevers, Poisons, and Apostemes: Authority and Experience in Montpellier Plague Treatises.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 441, No. 1 (April, 1985), pp. 153–;170.
Eamon, William. “Plagues, Healers, and Patients in Early Modern Europe.” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 474–486.
Garrison and Morton. Morton’s Medical Bibliography. An Annotated Check-List of Texts Illustrating the History of Medicine. Edited by Jeremy M. Norman. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1991. Fifth edition.
Horrox, Rosemary, ed. The Black Death. New York: Manchester University Press; New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Jones, Colin. “Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France.” Representations, No. 53 (Winter, 1996), pp. 97–127.
Keiser, George R. “Two Medieval Plague Treatises and Their Afterlife in Early Modern England.” Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. 58, July 2003, pp. 292–324.
Kiple, Kenneth F., ed. Plague, Pox & Pestilence. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
Klebs, Arnold C. Incunabula Scientifica et Medica. Short Title List. Compiled by Arnold C. Klebs. Bruges: The Saint Catherinie Press, 1938.
Meyers, Robin and Harris, Michael. Medicine, Mortality and the Book Trade. Folkestone, Kent, England: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press, 1998.
Naphy, William and Spicer, Andrew. Plague: Black Death and Pestilence in Europe. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.
Osler, William. Incunabula Medica. A Study of the Earliest Printed Medical Books 1467–1480. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.
Ranger, Terence and Slack, Paul, eds. Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Sarton, George. “The Scientific Literature Transmitted Through the Incunabula.” Osiris, Vol. 5 (1938), pp. 41–23, 125–245.
Sudhoff, Karl. Deutsche medizinische Inkunabeln. Leipzig, 1908.
Sudhoff, Karl. The Earliest Printed Literature on Syphilis. The Earliest Printed Literature on Syphilis.


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