Plague in the Ottoman World

Updated 19 March 2020

Coronavirus is not the plague. Nonetheless, we can see parallels between the current pandemic and the experience of plague for people who lived centuries ago. Listen to “Plague in the Ottoman World.” Try to jot down answers to the comprehension questions as you listen, and when you’re done, answer the discussion questions.

Comprehension Questions:

When answering the question, please indicate which speaker in the podcast provided this information. The questions may not be answered in order or may be answered in different ways throughout the podcast.

  1. How is plague commonly transmitted between humans?
  2. Plague is an old disease in human society, but in recent years, the way we understand plague has changed. What changed that allowed scholars to ask new questions about the history of plague?
  3. How did the nature of plague in the Ottoman Empire transform? Why?
  4. What is quarantine, in the context of the early modern world?
  5. What is epidemiological orientalism? Given an example from the podcast.
  6. In medieval and early modern Europe, what did people believe caused the plague? How did their understanding transform?
  7. Why might Western doctors or scholars during the 16th-18th century have wanted to accept a position working in the Middle East?

Discussion Questions:

When answering the question, try to support your answer with perspectives from the podcast.

  1. If you were living in the early modern Ottoman Empire, and plague started to spread in your city, would you flee to the countryside or shut yourself in your house? Why? Make sure to support your answer on the basis of how people at the time understood plague.
  2. Varlık refers to "retrospective diagnosis," by which she means the use of the science of today to understand disease processes in the past. She contrasts this approach with that of some historians, who prefer to privilege the views and understandings of disease of people in history themselves. What are the drawbacks and advantages of these different approaches?
  3. Yaron Ayalon says that disasters are a “magnifying glass” through which to view society. What can we learn about our society based on the experience with COVID-19 so far?
  4. Discourses about “others” spreading and being the source of plague are common in our podcast. Can you find examples of such discourses resembling “epidemiological orientalism” today?
  5. Orhan Pamuk emphasized that epidemics have social effects and can even disrupt social ties. But times of crisis may also bring people together. Have you experienced any social effects due to COVID-19?
  6. What do you think was different about the conditions in which plague spread during the early modern period as compared with the present epidemic. What is fundamentally the same in your view?
  7. Edna Bonhomme talked about an experiment with plague involving putting olive oil on rats. Why did people think it could work? Do you think this could actually work? Have you noticed the circulation of any ideas about COVID-19 that don’t have a scientific basis but appeal to people’s common sense? Do you yourself have any such beliefs or suspect that something you believe or have heard about COVID-19 may not be accurate?