Conceptions of Contagion in Ancient Literature
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The “seeds of disease” theory that emerged in Europe during the Renaissance period was not an entirely novel concept at the time. Humans were aware of the contagious properties of certain afflictions long before it was possible for them to observe the microorganisms responsible for disease transmission, and ancient authors had already speculated about the existence of imperceptible creatures as a cause of illness. This thesis will show that through ancient literary works of every type permeates the recognition of disease contagion not only between humans, but also between animals of the same species, animals of different species and between humans and animals. Chapter One will examine cases of intra-species infection, beginning with those that do not specify precisely the manner in which the illness in question is passed from one being to another. Instances in which particular factors are noted as contributing to the spread of disease will also be presented, followed by examples highlighting the recognition of intra-species infection in animals. Chapter Two will address the three varieties of inter-species infection of which ancient people were evidently aware: zoonosis, anthroponosis, and xenoosis. Chapter Three will explore the prevalent belief among the ancients that uninterred corpses incited pestilences. Chapter Four will discuss ancient views concerning the contamination of drinking water, as well as cases of deliberate infection with disease— ancient precursors to bioterrorism. Chapter Five will feature numerous theories of ancient authors regarding the presence of disease-causing microorganisms in the air. A variety of literary evidence will be examined throughout this paper and will prove that there was indeed a pervasive knowledge of disease contagion in the ancient world.