Max Weber Programme for Postdoctoral Studies - Department of History and Civilisation - European University Institute

Experiencing epidemics: Contextualising COVID-19 in history

With their podcast series 'Experiencing Epidemics', three EUI historians provide some needed long-term perspective on today’s pandemic, in an engaging and popular format.

20/07/2021 | News - Podcast - Research

The Black Death. The Spanish Flu. Small pox. HIV/AIDS. Epidemics and pandemics have marked the trajectory of history for millennia. With the deadly and global spread of COVID-19, humans again find themselves at the mercy of a dangerous and invisible threat.

To help make sense of this experience and to help the general public put it in historical perspective, in 2020 then- Max Weber Fellows Jorge Díaz Ceballos, Ian Hathaway and Gašper Jakovac successfully obtained support from the EUI to launch the podcast series Experiencing Epidemics. With the twelfth episode just released, the podcasts have received more than 1000 plays on major podcast platforms, such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

As the series creators explain, “We turn to an era before the rise of modern germ theory and ask one simple question: What does it mean to experience a deadly epidemic?

The webpage associated with each episode provides the listener with historical orientation, based as much as possible on primary documents, and a list of suggested further reading. The interactive online platform invites comments as well. The series contributors include historians of the various periods and global region (many of them EUI scholars), many of whom have published well received works on different aspects of past epidemics and their social context.

Among its most popular episodes, the series features contributions by EUI Professor Ann Thomson on anti-Muslim framing of the plague in the 1780s by Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney; and by Professor Giancarlo Casale with Nükhet Varlik and Tunahan Durmaz on the attempts of the Ottoman Empire to cope with plague epidemics in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the most recent episode, the podcast centres on a letter written by the famous Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus addressed the letter to his Italian correspondent Fausto Andrelini, who had urged him to return home to Paris after an outbreak of the plague. Knowing how deadly this “invisible and invincible pestilence” is, Erasmus rejects any heroic gesture and explains that sometimes escape is the best action – “not to shun death, for to die are we all born, but to avoid dying by my own fault.” The podcast was recorded by University of York Professor Brian Cummings, who – like all the contributors to the series – is an expert on the featured era or historical personality. 

The music for Experiencing Epidemics is also original. Anton Serdeczny, himself a former EUI Visiting Fellow and early modern historian, has composed and performed almost all of the music used in the series. Anton specializes in lullabies, Bartók’s legacy and European traditional folk music, and his music has been played at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris and recorded on both CD and vinyl disks.

Gašper Jakovac is a cultural and literary historian of the early modern period. Currently a Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (University of Edinburgh), he is soon to take up Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship at University College London and University of Toronto to work on a new project “Catholic Performance Culture in Early Modern England.” He was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI in 2019-2020.

Ian Hathaway is a historian of the early modern Mediterranean specialising on mobility, diplomacy, and cross-cultural interactions. Currently, he is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), where is concluding the research and writing of his first monograph titled “Patenting Power: Travel, Diplomacy, and Coexistence in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean.” He was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI in 2019-2020.

Jorge Díaz Ceballos is a historian of the early modern Spanish Empire, author of Poder Compatido. Repúblicas Urbanas, Monarquía y Conversación en Castilla del Oro, 1508-1573 (Marcial Pons 2020). He is postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville, where he is working on his second monograph, a global microhistory of the Spanish Empire in the 17th century. He was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI in 2019-2020.

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