Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 4.  Colonies

Supplementary readings for Week 4's lectures include excerpts from:

  • Treatise against the Serpentine Disease... (c.1510) by Ruy Diaz de Isla (1462-1542);
  • the writings of an anonymous author in Tlatelolco (1528);
  • the Florentine Codex, or Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (c.1579), created under the supervision of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590);
    • Physicians, from Book X
    • Ailments of the Body and Medicines Suitable to Use for Their Cure, from Book X
    • The Plague Named Totomonjztli, from Book XII
  • Brief Relation of the Gods and Rites of Heathenism (c. 1629) by Don Pedro Ponce, Beneficiado of the District of Tzumpahuacan;
  • Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain (1629) by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646);
  • A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590) by Thomas Hariot (1560-1621);
  • "June 2001:  And the Moon Be Still as Bright" (1948), in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1920-  ).

Around the turn of the sixteenth century, New World natives came into contact with people and things indigenous to the Old.  Each population harbored microbes unfamiliar to the bodies of the other, and for which they had acquired no natural immunity or routine defense.

This week's reading selections center on accounts of the consequences attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the transfer of infectious agents to a new population.  The featured diseases are:  syphilis (from the New to the Old World); smallpox (from the Old to the New World); and chickenpox (from Earth to Mars).

The smallpox epidemic that decimated the Aztecs in Teochtitlan is described in the Florentine Codex.  Thomas Hariot (1560-1621) was a contemporary of Shakespeare, Galileo, Francis Bacon, and William Gilbert.  He was an active participant in Ralegh's plans to establish a permanent English colony in the New World, and even traveled there himself as part of an adventurous group determined to stay for a year to test the feasibility of such a feat.  In his Briefe and True Reporte... (1590), Hariot describes a deadly sickness, now thought to be smallpox, that ravaged the native population following contact with the English settlers.

How does Hariot's account compare with those of the Aztec and Spanish in Mexico?

Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590) was a Franciscan friar who came to Mexico in 1529.  Franciscans believed the Aztecs were the lost tribes of Israel and that their past cultural achievements were comparable to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Working as a missionary gave Sahagún the opportunity to learn Nahuatl--the Aztec language--and become familiar with native customs.  By 1558, Church authorities were becoming increasingly concerned about the resistance of native belief systems to Christian indoctrination.  Hoping to remedy the situation, they ordered Sahagún to develop an accurate knowledge of Aztec religion, deities and rituals, a richer vocabulary for teaching Christianity to Aztecs in their own language, and a complete account of the Aztec world view so that Aztec society could be restored to its pre-conquest splendor based on Christianity.  The resulting document, called the Florentine Codex (1579), details every facet of Aztec life in hundreds of hand drawn and painted illustrations accompanied by verbal descriptions in both Spanish and transliterated Nahuatl.

How do the attitudes toward Aztec culture expressed in the Florentine Codex compare with those written fifty years later (1629) by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646)?

Ruiz de Alarcón was born in Mexico to Spanish parents.  He graduated from the University of Mexico in 1606.  By the time he took holy orders, the church officials were looking with more and more suspicion on the mixing of Christian and native beliefs.  Ruiz de Alarcón was active in pursuing those who violated church law, and he worked hard to publicize the pagan rituals and beliefs so they could be recognized and expunged.

How does he portray native healers and their methods?

Homespun European and Aztec Healing Methods
In early 1527, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c.1490-c.1557) left Spain as a part of a royal expedition to lay claim to the mainland of North America.  Beset by storms, disease, and hostile natives, what was left of the limping expeditionary force in late 1528 was shipwrecked on Galveston Island off the Texas coast.  Thus Cabeza de Vaca became one of the first Europeans to set foot in the West.  By 1534, only four of the original crew remained.  Cabeza de Vaca, who had earned a reputation among the natives as a healer, and his three fellows traveled inland across Texas and the Southwest into northern Mexico, where, in 1536, they were "rescued" by a band of their countrymen who were on a slave-taking expedition.

After reading about Cabeza de Vaca's methods of healing, compare them with those of the Aztecs described by Sahagún, Don Pedro Ponce, and Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón below.  Do you think that Sahagún's descriptions of good and bad physicians reflect Aztec or European opinions?

Ruy Díaz de Isla (1462-1542) was a Spanish physician living in Barcelona in 1493 when Columbus and his crew returned from their first voyage.  Years later, he described his own encounter with many of these men at that time, recalling that they were suffering from some unknown, but terrible affliction, which he called a "serpentine disease."  Based on these observations, Díaz de Isla compiled these recollections in Tractado contra el Mal Serpentino:  que vulgarmente en España es llamado Bubas (Treatise against the Serpentine Disease, which in Spain is commonly called the Buboes).  This treatise was probably passed around informally between 1510-1521 and finally published in 1539.  In 1535, historian Gonzalo Hernandez de Ovideo y Valdez (1478-1557), the son of a physician who had traveled with Columbus, also attributed the disease to Columbus's sailors, some of whom, he claimed, served as mercenaries in the French army of Charles VIII at the siege of Naples in December, 1494.

In 1530, physician Girolamo Fracastoro (c.1478-1553) published a poetic account of this scourge, entitled "Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus," from which the disease derived its name.  In it, Fracastoro extols the miracle cure for the disease made from the wood of the guaiacum, a tree native to the New World.  And he promotes a view voiced by others before him that remedies are always providentially located near the source of the disease they cure.

Was syphilis a new disease brought home to Europe by the first wave of explorers in the New World?  Or did Europeans only become aware of it after the printing press made it possible to circulate written descriptions to a wider audience?  Why is this controversy still unresolved in this day of modern science and medical technology?

Why do you think Ray Bradbury picked chickenpox as the disease which annihilates the Martians?  Given the accounts you've read of past events, how realistic is Bradbury's "future"?

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