Skip to content


Controlling contagion: epidemics and institutions from the Black Death to COVID

Add to calendar 2024-06-05 17:00 2024-06-05 18:30 Europe/Rome Controlling contagion: epidemics and institutions from the Black Death to COVID Refectory Badia Fiesolana YYYY-MM-DD


05 June 2024

17:00 - 18:30 CEST



Badia Fiesolana

MWP June Lecture with Sheilagh Ogilvie

How do societies use institutions – the humanly devised rules of social interaction – to tackle epidemic disease? Controlling Contagion (Princeton University Press, 2024) addresses this question using evidence from seven centuries of pandemics, from the Black Death to Covid-19. For most of history, infectious diseases have killed many more people than famine or war, and in 2019 they still caused one death in four. Epidemics provide one of our best laboratories for exploring how societies have for centuries tackled externalities – situations where my action creates costs or benefits for others in addition to those that I myself incur. This lecture explores how markets, states, communities, religions, guilds, and families dealt with the negative externalities of contagion; the positive externalities of social distancing, sanitation, and immunisation; and the cross-border externalities of vaccine diplomacy, river agreements, and quarantine. It shows how, long before scientific medicine, human societies coordinated and innovated to deal with biological shocks – well or badly.

Speaker bio:

I am an economic historian. I explore the lives of ordinary people in the past and try to explain how poor economies get richer and improve human well-being. I’m interested in how social institutions – the formal and informal constraints on economic activity – shaped economic development between the Middle Ages and the present day. I am the Chichele Professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Social Sciences, the CEPR, and CESifo, a Member of the Academic Association of the Collegium Carolinum, and an Advisory Board Member of CAGE and Souq Economics. 

I grew up in the western Canadian city of Calgary, and have since lived in Scotland, Germany, England, the USA, and the Czech Republic. I studied at the Universities of St Andrews, Cambridge, and Chicago, and was a Research Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge. I then taught for 31 years in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the University of Oxford in 2020.

My current research focusses on serfdom, human capital, state capacity, and epidemic disease. Past projects analysed guilds, merchants, communities, the family, gender, consumption, finance, proto-industry, historical demography, childhood, and social capital. I have a particular interest in the economic and social history of Central and Eastern Europe.


Sheilagh Ogilvie (All Souls College, Oxford)

Go back to top of the page