Unraveling Plague Discourses: From Renaissance Europe to COVID-19


On October 19-20, 2023, the Center for Media, Communication, and Global Change of The American University of Paris, in collaboration with the Université Côte d’Azur and the CNRS laboratory “Bases, Corpus, Langage” (Nice), hosted the conference “Discourses on the Plague (1347-1600): Authorities, Experience, and Experiments”.

The conference, organized by AUP professor Brenton Hobart (author of La Peste à la Renaissance : L’imaginaire d’un fléau dans la littérature au XVIe siècle Classiques Garnier, 2020) and Université Côte d’Azur professor Véronique Montagne (author of Médecine et rhétorique à la Renaissance : Le cas du traité de peste en langue vernaculaire, Classiques Garnier, 2017),  was one of several projects completed or currently being organized by the members of the scientific committee of the project HuMed. The proceedings to the conference are forthcoming with the French scholarly publisher Classiques Garnier. The members of the scientific committee were Violaine Giacomotto (Université Bordeaux Montaigne), Brenton Hobart (AUP), Magdalena Koźluk (Université of Łódź, Poland), Véronique Montagne (Université Côte d’Azur), Caroline Petit (University of Warwick), Guylaine Pineau (Université de Pau), Isabelle Vedrenne (Côte d’Azur), Valérie Worth-Stylianou (Trinity College, Oxford).

The conference explored how medical treatises, historical writings and literary narratives dealing with the plague use a common linguistic register which was recurrent from Antiquity to Renaissance Europe and which persists in today’s popular and scholarly imagination of how we envision epidemic disease, to demonstrate how Covid language and plague language are largely one and the same. The truth concerning disease is thereby molded, if not skewed, by a preconceived discourse, which the writers of such truth are (or feel) forced to revisit with the goal of 1) proving knowledge of and move beyond past diseases, or 2) establishing themselves as authoritative, or 3) transforming ineffable horror into an art form. To prove encyclopedic knowledge, medical authorities revisited literary and historical perspectives, and literary writers incorporated medical knowledge into their literature. Experiential, factual based discourse (“I sometimes witness X”) is thus subjugated to theoretical discourse (“I often read Y”), which is rehashed time and again because some long past authority happened to take note of it.

AUP welcomed twenty scholars of the medical humanities from the international community including historians, historians of medicine and literature, linguists, and classicists. Discussions throughout the conference included the relative importance of theory, imitation, experience, and experimentation in treatises on the plague and in the literature of the High Renaissance, while considering them in light of the current global medical crisis. They also considered the opposition and exchanges between the humanist tradition and personal enquiry, i.e., the place of ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘one’ and ‘I’ in these writings, together with the implied importance for empirical and subjective approaches, as well as the epistemological consequences of these choices by the authors of the treatises.

The following keynote addresses were delivered: 

  • Sylvie Bazin (linguist, Université de Lorraine): inaugural presentation, surveying how we have historically named and conceptualized the plague
  • Joël Coste (historian and rheumatologist, EPHE, Paris): reflections on how medical science has grappled with the multifaceted concept of the plague, or the multiple diseases categorized under the generic term plague
  • Véronique Boudon-Millot (classicist, CNRS, Sorbonne Université): the longevity and influence of Johannes Camerarius’s Latin treatise De theriacis et mithridateis commentariolus (1533)
  • Françoise Hildesheimer (historian and archivist, Archives nationales): Jean d’Antrechaus’ personal experience as first consul of Toulon when the plague struck the city in 1721, or his re-reading of the final great Western-European pestilence

For the full conference program: click here.