Picturing and Unpicturing the Plague

Living through large-scale epidemics in the past must have been incredibly harrowing and frightening experiences. Looking at contemporary images helps us to mentally place ourselves there: seeing how people at the time expressed their fears and their hopes makes such experiences all the more real hundreds of years later. Thanks to multiple digitization projects — and the reposting of digitized images online — we now have access to a greater number and variety of historical disease images from virtually all time periods than ever before. As a result, we can even picture being in the midst one of the worst pandemics in human history – the Black Death of 1346-53. Or can we?

Figure 1: James le Palmer, Omne bonum, c.1365. London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, vol. 2, fol. 301ra (cropped detail).

Figure 1: James le Palmer, Omne bonum, c.1365.
(Source: London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, vol. 2, fol. 301ra) (cropped detail).

This image, taken from a fourteenth century manuscript held in the British Library, is one of the most iconic images of the Black Death. It appears in science journals, academic publications, popular and scholarly websites and documentaries, museum exhibits, magazines, tourist pamphlets, and for-profit websites. In most cases, it is accompanied by a plague caption. However, art historians already knew that it isn’t an image of the plague at all – it is a representation of leprosy. A 2014 article in The Medieval Globe unearthed how, in the process of digitization, the image was cropped, and its original textual context – which clearly explained what the image portrayed – was completely lost. Someone subsequently mislabeled the image as the Black Death. The fact that symptomatic representations of plague are very rare before the late 15th century was missed and, once the image was released on the Internet, its erroneous identity became its new reality.

Figure 2: The Plague Image Project: Key Steps

Figure 2: The Plague Image Project: Key Steps

As a paper just published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases explains, a recent collaborative digital humanities mini-project found that identifying the source of the captioning error was just the first of several steps to fix it. Figure 2 shows the major components of this project: convincing the British Library to change its caption (no easy task!); finding and correcting Wikipedia’s use of the image across twenty-three different language and multiple topic sites; identifying and contacting all the major online users of the image, and convincing them to correct their labels. As Figure 3 demonstrates, the project team identified more than fifty important websites; setting aside the more frivolous Pinterest and Tumblr sites, the team concentrated on sites likely to have an impact: history or medical/science educational sites, the media, and commercial websites. In the end, twenty-two sites removed the image or fixed the caption; three left it online for educational purposes, and twenty-six neither responded nor made any changes. Unfortunately, among those not responding were most of the for-profit sites – and so the image remains on those sites, still for sale and still with the wrong caption. Buyer beware!

Figure 3:Types of Websites Using Erroneous Plague Caption, created by the author using project data

Figure 3: Types of Websites Using Erroneous Plague Caption, created by the author using project data

As scholars, we are rely more and more on the digital humanities for much of our research and teaching, whether we are talking about the history of epidemic diseases or any other topic. Easier access to the past is clearly a boon to education and research – and to generating public interest in in the history and science of disease – but it can have unintended consequences. Twenty-first century technology has opened new doors for both using and misusing historical disease images – if not medical images more generally. By not giving the same careful consideration to a historical image that we would give to a historical text, we not only give the image itself the wrong meaning – and thereby miss the very interesting historical narrative that it was trying to tell – but we also perpetuate these misrepresentations among our colleagues and our students.

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Lori Jones

PhD Candidate at University of Ottawa
Lori Jones is a PhD Candidate and sessional instructor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on how written portrayals of the geographical and historical origins of the plague evolved across the late medieval to early modern periods in England and France. She is also keen to ensure that historical disease images are used appropriately!

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About Lori Jones

Lori Jones is a PhD Candidate and sessional instructor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on how written portrayals of the geographical and historical origins of the plague evolved across the late medieval to early modern periods in England and France. She is also keen to ensure that historical disease images are used appropriately!
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