Why Do Some Epidemic Diseases Lead to Hatred?

An Investigation into the Impact of Economic Inequality on the Extent of Blame, Persecution, Hatred and Violence after Early Modern Plagues in the Northern Low Countries


PlagueDaniel R. Curtis, Leiden University

The connection between environmental hazards and biological shocks and social unrest has grown in interest in recent years (Parker 2013). While numerous works making use of regression analysis have attempted to establish connections between climate change and episodes of social unrest and conflict, as though the two were linked together as a universal law through time and space, more careful historical literature on the association between epidemic diseases and social breakdown has cautioned us about believing that they produced any kind of ‘inevitable’ patterned societal response (Cohn 2012). In that vein, my project looks at the relationship between plague epidemiology and type and extremity of societal responses, using the laboratory of the medieval and early modern Low Countries. Did more severe and pervasive plagues produce greater degrees of societal disruption, for example? The idea of the project is to (a) reconstruct the epidemiological features of plague in the Low Countries (severity, pervasiveness, seasonality, selectiveness) to a previously unmatched degree for anywhere else in Europe across such a long time period and geographical area, and (b) to investigate connections with the extremity of societal responses by taking a more quantifiable approach – using indicators such as criminality, civil processes, inheritance disputes, inequality, charitable behavior, and dysfunction in institutions for collective action. To what extent did environment and biology act as a ‘historical protagonist’ (Campbell 2010; 2016), and is it valid to use the concept for understanding historical processes?

This project is funded with a veni grant from the NWO.