In 1998 a team of French scientists published a study demonstrating that the epidemic of infectious disease that struck Marseille in 1720–2, widely held at the time and ever since to be plague, was indeed plague.1 Two years later, the same team made a similar claim about the so-called Black Death, which spread over Europe between 1347 and 1353.2 Articles of this sort by various authors have continued to come out almost annually since 2000, always of course in scientific journals, but usually with a follow-up version in the popular press recast for a general audience. Neither the technical nor the popular versions have been offering much in the way of context, for example by showing how any one of the studies might relate to those reported previously. Attentive readers could thus well wonder what is so important about proving...

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