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A Cultural History of Pandemics


Admission requirements

Required course(s):



When this course starts, the world will hopefully be in the final stages of one of the greatest global challenges of the past decades, COVID-19. Pandemics cause great individual pain and loss, but they also have a profound effect on social and cultural discourses and practices. In this course we will study how different pandemics have affected cultures all over the world over time - from Tenochtitlan in 1520 to Wuhan in 2020 - and how a wide variety of cultural constructs, ranging from Renaissance paintings to newspaper cartoons, can be read and researched as historical records of this impact.

The first part of the course will focus on six different pandemics: bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 and trace their history through a wide range of images and texts. In the second part of the course, we will focus on a number of specific works of art and literature created during various pandemics and discuss how these reflected on individual experience of illness, loss and recovery as well as wider cultural and social contexts. We will also look at how cultural histories of pandemics have been written and rewritten over time and, with this in mind, visit and study the Contagious! exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden.

This course obviously deals with death, pain, fear, loss and grief, and will touch on subjects like racism and genocide. However, do please note that any pandemic also involves hope, resilience and resourcefulness, and can bring about positive changes – these too will be discussed in the course.

Course Objectives


  • Identify a number of major pandemics in (early) modern history and relate these to a number of social and cultural discourses and practices in different societies across the world.

  • Identify a number of historical images and texts related to these pandemics and be able to explain how they reflect on the individual experience of the pandemic as well as the social and cultural developments caused by it.

  • Understand the various ways in which cultural constructs are involved in the creation of historical narratives of pandemics, in terms of dissemination, framing and reframing, and reception.


  • Read images and texts in the context of their period and be able to relate them to wider social and cultural discourses, narratives and practices.

  • Do (historical) research in a number of different archives and databases.

  • Give a substantial and well-structured historical analysis of a small set of related images, and support the argumentation with contemporary sources.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2021-2022 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

This course consists of two-hour seminars, comprising interactive lectures, discussions and practical exercises. Students are expected to come prepared to class and to participate actively in discussions.

Assessment Method

  • Participation 15%

  • Vlog assignment 25%*

  • Presentation 20%*

  • Final paper (2000 words) 40%

  • Note that even though these are team assignments, students will be graded individually.

Please note that all assignments need to be submitted in order to pass the course and that penalties will apply to work that is handed in after the deadline.

Reading list

A detailed reading list will be given before the start of the course. The course will not require you to buy any books: all materials will be available via Leiden University Library’s digital catalogue, the online archive of the Wellcome Collection and, in some cases, Brightspace.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Jacqueline Hylkema,