Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

Ten Plagues: A History of Cities and Pandemics

Course # 01:090:293:H2
Index# 06035
M 12:10PM-3:10PM
Brett Seminar Room CAC
Carla Yanni & Seth Koven

Societies responded to epidemics in many different ways based on their understanding of the nature and causes of specific diseases and structures of belief about the body, health, medicine, disease, religion, race, class, and gender. For centuries, the city has been a place of freedom from tradition and custom where people could blend into a crowd and construct new identities. In some parts of Medieval Europe, a serf could claim legal freedom from labor obligations merely by escaping the countryside and living in the city for a year and day, hence the expression “City air makes free after a year and a day.” But the emancipatory potential of the city has a dark side. The very qualities that define the city -- housing density, mixing of diverse peoples, bustling marketplaces as sites of exchange of ideas and goods -- are the characteristics that make city-dwellers especially vulnerable to infectious disease.

Contemporaries often viewed cities not just as vectors of deadly illness but as sources of physical and moral pollution. For the great 14th century storyteller Giovanni Boccaccio, the flight from plague-infested Florence to the cordoned solitude of a country villa provoked unparalleled literary creativity and bawdy escapist inventiveness. For early 16th century Aztec chroniclers, the visitation of smallpox to their great capital city was an instrument of terror far mightier than Spanish swords and guns at a pivotal moment of encounter between Old and New World peoples. Many in South Asia venerated a goddess, Sitala, who they specifically identified with smallpox and its cure, while states expanded their capacity to clean up cities and discipline populations through developing public health policies, programs, institutions and bureaucracies.

Managing diseases often meant reconfiguring public and private space; regulating the movement of people; and designing new sorts of buildings such as the lazarreto (a maritime quarantine station). Existing buildings lacked ventilation and often required reconstruction to mitigate the worst effects of contagion. Pandemics may have afflicted princes and paupers alike but their impact and approaches to them unfolded along lines of profoundly unequal power between people. Then as now, every pandemic had its scapegoat.

About Carla Yanni

My area of specialization is the social history of architecture in 19th- and 20th-century Britain and the United States. I am the author of three monographs, each one a social history of a single building type. In April 2020, I was elected as Second Vice President of the Society of Architectural Historians. My approach to architectural history falls between vernacular architectural studies and the study of works by known architects. I am less interested "great men" than I am in the meanings people in history made from the buildings they lived with. Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) examines the dwellings of college students set against the backdrop of massive shifts in higher education and proposes that residence halls manifest ideas about student life, education, class, gender, race, and citizenship.


About Seth Koven

My teaching and research interests include gender, social, economic, and cultural history of Europe, 1750 to the present, with particular focus on Great Britain; Modern European women's history; the history of sexuality; and comparative urban and cultural history. I have published on a variety of topics including the history of disability and the body; childhood; museums for the poor; gender, maternalism, and comparative welfare states (Mothers of a New World, 1993).

My current work centers on two ongoing studies.  The first is a collaborative project with Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley) on the history of humanitarianism and anti-humanitarianism from the 18th to 20th centuries. The second project explores the history of “conscience” in early 20th century Britain. This project asks: what is conscience? Who gets to have one and who does not? It analyzes those moments when “conscience” itself became the subject of intense ethical and political debate. It begins in Edinburgh in the 1820s and 30s and the campaign by zealous men of faith in Scotland, Ireland and England to save religion from the state by disestablishing all state churches. It ends in the opening decades of the 20th century with the empire-wide movement of passive resistance against the British state; the queering of conscience during WWI and the rehabilitation of conscience as a usable ethical category in British interwar internationalism.