The figure of the staggering rat: reading colonial outbreak narratives against the grain of “virus hunting”

Christos Lynteris*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Abstract

The image of dazed, plague-infected rats coming out of their nests and performing a pirouette in front of the surprised eyes of humans before dying is one well-known to us through Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947). This article examines the historical roots of this image and its emergence in French missionary narratives about plague outbreaks in the Chinese province of Yunnan in the 1870s on the eve of the Third Plague Pandemic. Showing that accounts of the “staggering rat” were not meant as naturalist observations of a zoonotic disease, as is generally assumed by historians, but as a cosmological, end-of-the-world narrative with a colonial agenda, the article argues for an approach to historical accounts of epidemics that does not succumb to the current trend of “virus hunting” in the archive, but rather takes colonial outbreak narratives ethnographically seriously.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
VolumeAdvance Article
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2024

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