The truth gets its shoes on: the Black Death on Wikipedia

This post was written by Richard Nevell

Mark Twain said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The same applies to honest mistakes. The ease with which information spreads across the Internet means the stakes are higher when it comes to getting things right. But with a bit of help, it’s possible to get the genie back in the bottle. Mostly at least.

For several years, many sources – including a wide range of academic websites – described the image on the right as depicting people suffering from the Black Death, the pandemic of plague that swept through most of Eurasia in the mid-fourteenth century.  The illustration itself dates from 1360-75 and is from an illuminated manuscript, Omne Bonum by James le Palmer. 1 In fact, the image shows clerics with leprosy being instructed by a bishop. It’s easy to see how the mistake happened: the Black Death affected a huge number of people across Europe, caused visible physical symptoms, and coincided roughly with when the illustration was produced. But the text itself is about leprosy, and that disease was commonly depicted in the medieval period with red spots like those shown in the image.

The misinterpretation had become so prevalent the issue became the topic of an article in a new academic journal: ‘Diagnosis of a “Plague” Image: A Digital Cautionary Tale’ in The Medieval Globe. Published just a couple of months ago, it didn’t take long before the paper started to have an effect. This is due in no small part to the fact that the article is freely available – in fact the entire volume of The Medieval Globe is open access. The authors approached the British Library to update its Images Online website and its Illuminated MSS Online Catalogue.

When used in print, there’s often not much which can be done until a new edition is printed, but online there’s the chance that a correction can spread just as the original error did. A reverse Google image search means that it’s possible to find out how this image is being used, and even approach those websites to get the image replaced. This has already started, and there have been some positive responses.

The article specifically mentioned Wikipedia’s use of the Omne Bonum image. It was used on 44 pages across 23 different languages, with another two uses on Wikibooks and Wikiquote. This shows how widely and easily Wikipedia can be used to spread information. In March 2014, the English Wikipedia’s page on the Black Death was one of the 400 most-visited pages on Wikipedia; over the course of a year, that page alone managed 4.3 million views.

The English pages were fixed very quickly once the issue was pointed out. On 4th December an anonymous editor mentioned the issue on the discussion page for the Black Death article. The following day another editor replaced the image in the article, and anywhere else on the English Wikipedia if it was being used to illustrated the plague. I chipped in with more edits myself in my free time, however, the further you move from the source language, the more persistent a mistake can be; the image still appears with the incorrect description on at least 28 pages and, with so many languages to take into account, it helps to have as many people joining in as possible.

If you speak and write in a language other than English, please take a look at the pages here (look for the image labelled “Leprosy victims taught by bishop”) and check that the image from Omne Bonum isn’t being used to depict the Black Death. If it is, please replace it! I emailed one of the authors of the paper which brought this issue out into the open, and was told that this image is a good alternative.

Any help would be very much appreciated!

Notes:

  1. Royal 6 E. VI; Page Folio Number: f. 301rb
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