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Making sense of epidemics in Europe, 1500-1800


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


The worldwide experience of a major pandemic confronts us with the importance of cultural difference in the handling of disease. While medical research is a global enterprise, the way in which medical knowledge is culturally understood and translated into policy, causes variation in its social impact, cultural response and individual experience. In this seminar, we will explore and explain the historical dimensions of this variation in early modern Europe. Building on the Leiden/Amsterdam research project Chronicling novelty, ( we will consider especially how we can use local chronicles to research (a) the changing cultural frameworks in which disease was understood (b) changing social and medical policies and their implementation, and (c) the individual appropriation and understanding of such ideas. Having considered the issues surrounding the selection and interpretation of our material, you will write a paper in which you focus on the management of a particular epidemic in this period. In the process, you will both develop your skills in identifying and working with narrative sources, and consider some of the big questions surrounding the relationship between science, government, society and individual in the period. Depending on the spread of language skills in the group, we may also explore digital humanities approaches to a larger body of texts.

There is an entry test for this paper; details will be announced two weeks before our first class.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the specialisation or subtrack as well as of the historiography of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the broader processes of political, social and cultural identity formation between about 1000-1800; awareness of problems of periodisation and impact of ‘national’ historiographical traditions on the field.

    1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the ability to analyse and evaluate primary sources from the period, if necessary with the aid of modern translations; ability to make use of relevant methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis to interpret sources in their textual and historical context.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) will obtain knowledge and insight in early modern cultural frameworks for understanding epidemical disease

  • 14) will obtain knowledge and insight in early modern public health policies and their social impact

  • 15) will obtain knowledge and insight in the use of chronicles to study the appropriation and spread of ideas

  • 16) (ResMA only) either by comparing two cases OR by confronting different types of source-material, students will focus especially on the understanding of long-term change in the management and cultural impact of epidemics.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    *measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-15 (ResMa also: 16)

  • Entry test
    *measured learning objectives, 4-7, 8-9, 11-15 (ResMA also: 10 and 16)

  • Oral presentation and other assignments,
    *measured learning objectives: 3-9, 11-15 (ResMA also: 10)


  • Written paper: 70%

  • Entry test: 10%

  • Oral presentation and other assignments 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient. Students should pass the entry test to be admitted to the course.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

  • Judith Pollmann, ‘Archiving the present and chronicling for the future in early modern Europe.’, Past & Present 233 (2016) 231–252.

  • A journal of the plague year: the diary of the Barcelona tanner Miquel Parets, 1651. Ed. James S. Amelang (New York: Oxford University Press 1991)

  • Kristy Wilson Bowers, ‘Balancing Individual and Communal Needs: Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81 (2007) 335–58.

  • Further reading to be announced.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. dr. J.S. Pollmann