Iconic Plague Images Are Often Not What They Seem

Many images that have been used traditionally to depict the Black Death are, in fact, not images of the plague at all. Now, a group of dedicated historians are trying to correct the record.
A 15th-century image by Jacopo Oddi from the La Franceschina codex depicts Franciscan monks treating victims of the plague in Italy. Source: A. Dagli Orti

Many of the images we associate with the plague actually depict leprosy or smallpox. In fact, there are very few images of the Black Death from the time of the scourge.

A few weeks ago, I reported a story about three cases of the plague in New Mexico. The bacterial illness pops up fairly regularly across the globe and is now easily treatable with antibiotics, if caught in time.

The story ran with an iconic image of the plague from a 15th-century Italian document.

But, as historian swiftly on Twitter, the image doesn't actually depict the plague. The patients shown are suffering from leprosy. So, we took the image down and replaced it with another iconic image of the plague, made about 50 years earlier and published in a Swiss Bible. That one, it turns out, doesn't show the Black Death,

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from NPR

NPR4 min read
Brad Pitt On Making 'Ad Astra,' Processing Trauma And Channeling David Bowie
The actor stars in a new science-fiction blockbuster about more than just an astronaut on a space mission: "We wanted to do something very sincere and raw and painfully honest," he says.
NPR5 min read
He's Trying To Fill In The Gaps On Google Street View — Starting With Zimbabwe
Not every corner of the world is yet on Google Street View. Tawanda Kanhema sees these gaps as a kind of digital divide, so he volunteers to photograph and upload some of the places left off the map.
NPR2 min readPolitics
British Oil Tanker Seized By Iran Will Be Released Soon, Iranian Official Says
The Stena Impero was detained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19 for alleged marine violations. Iranian maritime officials have given no set date for its release.