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A Cultural History of Pandemics


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

None required, but Cultural & Visual Analysis (CHS) is recommended.


As we have experienced over the past few years, 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 throughout history - from Tenochtitlan in 1520 to The Hague in 2022 - and how a 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, 1918 Flu, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19) and trace their history through a wide range of images, texts and objects. In the second part, we will focus on a number of specific images and objects created during different pandemics and discuss how they reflect 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. The Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden will play a major part in the second part of the course, which will include a visit to the museum as well as a guest lecture by Dr. Mieneke te Hennepe, the curator of its medical collections.

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 pandemics also involve 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, texts and objects 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, texts and objects 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 2022-2023 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%*

  • Museum assignment 20%

  • Final paper (2000 words) 40%

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 and the online archive of the Wellcome Collection.


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,