Author Interview: Plagues Had a Huge Impact on our Society, Says Julia Hauser

Plagues have impacted and moulded our societies in more ways than one. So much so that some of the best literature and art that we have came about because of the plagues, says Julia Hauser, who co-authored the book The Moral Contagion with Sarnath Banerjee. Excerpts from an interview with Kunzum:

Bhavneet: You have told the story of plagues in different parts of the world through the stories of people, not the story of the plague. How did that come around? 
Julia: Much of the time dealt with in the book is quite removed for the average reader, especially if people are not so much in touch with history, and so I thought that looking at this disease through the eyes of individuals would make it more tangible and would make it easier for the reader to empathise with. 

Bhavneet: How long did the research for this book take you? 
Julia: All in all, it took around three years. Two to three years, to do the research and the writing. It’s not actually a work of research. It’s more like a lightly written book for which you don’t read as much as for a book of research. And also, this was written during Covid. In Germany, especially in the first months of Covid, all libraries were closed and so I had to work with material that was readily available, that is, published primary sources and secondary sources. 

Bhavneet: How did your collaboration with Sarnath come around? 
Julia: We, incidentally, were introduced by a friend when I was visiting India just before the outbreak of Covid in February 2020. And then we agreed to meet in Berlin, and the day we met happened to be the first day of the first lockdown. And of course, the conversation was all around, you know, how will this disease change us? How will it change society? And I said, well, it probably will because the plague also has done that centuries agoAnd so that raised interest, and I started researching. 

Bhavneet: Would you say that these plagues at one level have had some sort of impact on our civilization as we have grown? 
Julia: Yes, they had a huge impact. They had an impact on art. They had an impact on literatures, the famous works of literature were created because of the plague. Whole genre in European art, for instance, the danse macabre, which you see on the title of the book, was originated just because of the plague. Medical knowledge grew because of this illness. Certain religious practices flourished because of it. It had a huge impact. 

Bhavneet: In terms of medical growth, did we come around with new medicines or did we come around with new ways to treat the illnesses? 
Julia: For centuries, it seems that people approached it with much the same knowledge, although perhaps we still need to do more in-depth research on that. But it seems that for centuries Humorism, a paradigm deriving from ancient Greek medicine and expanded by Arab physicians, which was actually the most dominant approach and Humorism explained illness by connecting the human body to larger dynamics, so to speak, the microcosm to the macrocosm, that is, the position of the stars, the weather, the climate and so on. And it was only in the 19th century that actually viruses, bacteria, microbes were discovered and then that created the ground for actually coming up with vaccines. 

Bhavneet: During your research, you studied the plague and its impact on different cultures, societies, countries and told their stories through single or maybe groups of individuals. How did that uniform connect come into entirety of the book? 
Julia: On one hand, societies grew more restrictive because of the plague. Morality was often regulated much more strongly in the hope of keeping people separate really in order to avoid contagion. Minorities were often persecuted in the wake of a plague pandemic because they were thought to be super spreaders, to put it in modern terms. These are really the most important things we were interested in in the book. And I was interested when writing it. 

Bhavneet: You are a professor of history and a student of history apart from the plague, what else have you found interesting to write about? 
Julia: I have long been interested in the history of the body. How our body is actually significant in history and, of course, the plague largely belongs in that area. I’ve been interested in the history of food, not just as a culinary thing, but also as a mirror of wider cultural change. I’m also interested in the history of religion and in the history of globalization, by and large in the 19th and 20th century, especially contacts between Europe and South Asia and also Europe and the Middle East. 

Bhavneet: So are you working on books on those? 
Julia: I have recently published a book on the history of vegetarianism. And before that, I published a history on a book on German missionaries in the Ottoman Empire. Right now, I’m thinking about new projects, but there isn’t a definite new project yet. I’m thinking about various things. 

Bhavneet: Moving away from your book and history, what kind of books do you like reading? 
Julia: I’ve always loved reading biographies. I like reading utopias. Like for instance, I found Sultana’s Dream very very interesting. And then there are, of course, history books. 

Bhavneet: In terms of reading, you know you’ve written a fantastic book. I was quite enjoying reading it. What do you think is the importance of reading. 
Julia: I think it’s hugely important in an age of social media that we read because social media is often quite a combat. Opinions go against each other very quickly, and that can often be very problematic. We miss nuances, we miss noticing the nuances. We miss looking into arguments different from our own. And I think all of that is enabled by reading and also empathy. Empathy is really important, especially in an age of growing tensions, it is really important to be empathetic. Books help us learn that. 

Bhavneet: Would you say that social media is making society a little superficial, as in, we’re not going into the depth of things. We are just looking at them superficially? 
Julia: Yes, I think it is prone to creating superficiality, yes and also people maybe meet less or talk less in person because there is social media. I think we need to go back to having conversations in person and reading.

Pick up Julia Hauser and Sarnath Banerjee’s The Moral Contagion from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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