Contagion is a podcast series on circulation and pandemic threats throughout history jointly promoted by Cromohs and the Cost Action CA18140 ‘People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean (1492’1923)’, or PIMo:

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis forced all of us to re-organize our scientific activity. It impacts our social and academic life. It also invited historians and social scientists to share their work, to publicize their multiple insights on the current crisis, and to look at it into the light of different historical experiences. Contagion askes how individuals, groups, societies and states reacted to pandemics. Doing so it explores the economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions of pandemics as well as their impact on the evolution of societies. It is equally a matter of better understanding how the pandemic risk has been assessed, managed, and anticipated in ordinary times by communities and public actors.

Pandemics must be seen as an integral part of global history. Viruses are proteins; they do not circulate per se but are carried by living beings, both humans and animals. The spread of a virus can be considered a risk associated with all forms of circulation. It is up to each society to be aware of this and to assess this risk according to its own expectations. The history of a pandemic is therefore linked to the history of trade, navigation, colonization and travel, but also to the history of science and the constitution and dissemination of knowledge. In the 16th century, the introduction of smallpox in the Caribbean and then in the Americas by European sailors, soldiers and missionaries led to the extinction of 90% of the native populations; they had not developed antibodies to a disease they had never encountered. The crew of Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, brought syphilis back to the Mediterranean, and the wars in Italy then spread it throughout Europe.

Epidemics and pandemics can indeed be the result of wars. The virus can still be a biological weapon. In 1346, the Mongols of the Golden Horde catapulted contaminated bodies over the walls of the Genoese colony of Caffà, whose merchants brought the ‘Black Death’ to Europe. A virus spread all the more easily as the organisms were weakened. 17th-century European Catholic societies associated the plague with famine and war in their prayers. The first Sino-Japanese war of 1894 increased the risk of the spread of the plague first contained in China, which very quickly affected the entire Asian Pacific coast as well as India. And the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 could be considered intrinsically linked to war because of the weakened societies and the circulation of soldiers, in and through which it was spread. The spread of ebola in the province of North Kivu in 2019 was another obvious evidence of the close and complex link between an infectious disease and a war that has been going on since 2004.

Societies could respond to pandemics in radically different ways, generate a variety of emotions. In the 16th-century Aztec Empire as in the 17th-century the Holy Roman Empire, an eschatology developed with the effects of diseases that significantly amplified respectively the deaths of the Spanish conquest and the Thirty Years War. The diary of Sam Pepys is an exceptional source on the perception of the effects of the ‘Great Plague’ in 1665 London. Pepys, like the rest of the gentry, perceived the plague as an urban threat. As the first districts were quarantined, he described the departure of London’s elite to the countryside, spreading the disease even further. He himself sent his mother and wife to Woolwich but stayed in town to ensure the supply of London. He staged his indifference in front of the bodies piling up in the streets and a sort of acceptance of the banality of death. The summer heatwave seemed to him heavier than the plague. Medicine and society could also clash in the interpretation of the necessary measures to be taken during a time of crisis. While during the ‘Black death’ in Granada, Ibn Katima introduced a first typology of plagues, explained how they spread, and recommended social distancing, in Florence Giovanni Boccaccio denounced the selfishness of his contemporaries who turned away from the sick and left them to die alone, rather than accompanying them if not trying to cure them. Pandemics can indeed generate stigmatization and social marginalization of infected people and, like the AIDS epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s, this stigmatization can be more devastating than the disease itself.

Despite their global dimension, pandemics were also part of the history of states and state-building. ‘Exclusion’ and ‘surveillance’ were according to Michel Foucault the two pillars of biopolitics. It is certainly no coincidence that Thomas Hobbes, the theorist of the social contract in England, was also the translator of Thucydides’ The Plague in Athens. The biological protection of the social body becomes an imperative for the State, whose legitimacy rested on the existence of this body. Bad policy led in Athens to the death of the state itself, embodied here by that of Pericles and the numerous religious desecrations. Then epidemics and pandemics were occasions for the development of the institutions through which the State informed itself and imposed social control over the governed populations. Closing borders, restricting freedom of movement and expression, distrust of foreigners and the temporary or permanent exclusion from society of certain groups identified as vulnerable, are measures specific to biopolitics. In this sense, infectious diseases also constitute a risk for today democracies.

It is all of these themes that Contagion proposes to tackle with the participation of historians from different periods and disciplines working throughout the world.

PIMo Youtube Playlist

By |2022-09-23T15:17:34+00:00September 23rd, 2022|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

You can now find all the videos produced by PIMo members in one place. This is a great resource for teaching and for understanding the ongoing research production and exchange  at the heart of this project: 

Podcast 5: ‘The Yellow Fever and the Italian States in 1804,’ Paul-Arthur Tortosa, A PiMO-CROMOHS Contagion Podcast

By |2020-07-01T09:09:48+00:00July 1st, 2020|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

Since the plague pandemic of the 13th century, Italian states have created sanitary institutions to deal with epidemics. However, even though all the Italian states had similar sanitary institutions they reacted quite differently when yellow fever struck Livorno in 1804. This paradox – a variety of political answers to the same biological threat – reveals the inextricable nature of the political, economic, social and diplomatic stakes in the management of epidemics. First, health magistrates played a crucial diplomatic role, for the territories suspected of being infected were subjected to quarantine with serious economic consequences. Second, although health policies were based on uncertain and changing medical knowledge, they were meant to be universal and legitimate. Meanwhile, the population did not remain passive in the face of health measures: the richest managed to circumvent the regulations while the poor fled the infected city.

Podcast 4: ‘Thucydides and the Plague of Athens,’ Dr Spyridon Rangos, A PIMo-CROMOHS Contagion Podcast

By |2020-05-25T15:20:57+00:00May 25th, 2020|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

In 431 B.C. a war exploded in Greece between the two major political, economic and military powers of the time, Athens and Sparta, and their allies. Generally known as the Peloponnesian War, this great war spanned an entire period of 27 years and led to the total defeat of Athens (404 B.C.). In the summer of 430 B.C., a deadly epidemic broke out in Athens. The first phase of the disease lasted two whole years. In 427 B.C. the epidemic struck back in a somewhat weakened form for about a year. The Athenians lost 5,450 heavy-armed warriors, 300 equestrians of noble birth, a high number of auxiliary soldiers and a still higher of civilians (citizens, resident aliens and slaves). It is estimated that one quarter to almost one third of the entire population passed away (c. 60,000-80,000 people). Our main evidence for the plague of Athens is the work of Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general. For him, it was the greatest epidemic recorded in history. His eye-witness account of the physical symptoms, the psychological impact and the ethical consequences [...]

Podcast 3: ‘Disposing of corpses during World War I,’ Dr Romain Fathi, A PIMo-CROMOHS Contagion Podcast

By |2020-05-12T08:45:06+00:00May 1st, 2020|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

Belligerents that took part in the First World War could not have anticipated the lethality of the conflict. Within a few weeks of the war’s outbreak, armies were overwhelmed with corpses. Their existing policies and logistics to dispose of dead bodies were insufficient. As corpses piled up, they became a real epidemiological threat. Armies were relatively mobile, and it was feared that contagion from corpses to soldiers could also spread to civilian populations. When corpses putrefy, bacteria multiply and corpses become agents for the propagation of pathogens, particularly if the bodies were infected with typhoid, cholera or dysentery prior to their death. As a result of the threat posed by unprecedented number of corpses, First World War armies set up what I refer to as ‘body disposal policies and practices’. Those were created and trialled to dispose of corpses as efficiently and safely as possible through mass graves and cremation for instance, mobilising many soldiers, gravediggers and complex logistics. The German Army on the Western Front, 1914 - 1918 (HU 83788) German and British dead being buried by British [...]

Podcast 2: ‘The Turks and the Plague in the 18th Century,’ Prof Ann Thomson, A PIMo-CROMOHS Contagion Podcast

By |2020-04-24T19:52:37+00:00April 24th, 2020|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

Eighteenth-century European views of the Ottomans reveal a complex set of politico-religious interests, as the Ottoman Empire declined militarily and gradually became less an object of fear. It was associated with certain clichéd images, in particular of despotism and fanaticism. Among these associations was the prevalence of the plague, which was endemic in many parts of the Ottoman empire, while after 1720 it no longer ravaged Europe. While this situation was often explained by the climate, many authors associated the prevalence of the plague with what they called Turkish “fatalism”, claiming that the Muslim belief in predestination prevented governments and individuals from taking any of the precautions against the disease used by Europeans. Thus the plague became part of the stock of anti-Turkish arguments, used in the justifications for political alignments in the Mediterranean. In the 1780s, an anti-Turkish author like the Frenchman Volney opposed those who supported the Ottomans as a bulwark against Russian expansionism, and argued for their expulsion from Europe and the Mediterranean; he went as far as identifying the Turks with the contagion, claiming that it [...]

Podcast 1: ‘Lazarets Never Aimed to Stop Circulation’, Dr David Do Paço, A PIMo-CROMOHS Contagion Podcast

By |2020-04-14T09:58:53+00:00April 9th, 2020|PIMo-CROMOHS 'Contagion' Video Podcast Series|

The history of lazarets lies at the crossroads between the history of circulations and that of pandemics. Initially built to isolate and treat plague patients, they were then closely associated with the economic development of the early modern European states, and ensured the development of safe circulation in the Mediterranean and Central Europe. Here, through the example of the lazaret of Trieste, we can also understand that a lazaret was a micropolis, and the social and cultural importance of such micropolis for the city, the history, and the memory of Trieste. This history is also that of an empire, of its governance and of the many actors operating at the local, regional and global levels, despite an ever-present pandemic risk.