Pandemics: Lessons from History

The details
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 18 December 2020
10 June 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

Pandemics brutally remind us that we are subject to nature, vulnerable as a species to being suddenly subjected to forces we either do not control or fully understand. They summon forth a variety of responses: mystical and apocalyptic beliefs, persecutions (whether religious, ethnic or social), state interventions, community and neighbourly initiatives, applications (or misapplications) of existing bodies of knowledge (for example, science – both bad and good - and pseudoscience). All of these responses take different forms according to culture, society and period. This module explores and compares these responses in the period from 1500 to the present by focusing on the six great pandemics: bubonic plague (the so-called 'Black Death'), small pox, cholera, the Great Flu, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. The module demonstrates that the pandemic, ultimately dependent upon the existence of the most basic life forms – bacteria – or an entity that is arguably not even a life form – the virus – helps us to understand societies, past and present, even as it ravages and transforms them.

Module aims

To provide students with a complex, comparative understanding of how pandemics have shaped social experience and historical development; to introduce students to the variety of sources appropriate for the exploration of pandemics in a number of different periods and societies; to train students in the techniques and implications of comparative and contemporary history.

Module learning outcomes

1. A broad and sophisticated knowledge of the place and significance of pandemics in history since 1500
2. Ability to analyse and employ complex sources relating to the study of pandemics and their impacts.
3. Ability to use the methods of comparative and contemporary history, including an understanding of their methodological implications.

Module information

For introductory reading, see:

Nancy Brisow, American Pandemic. The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel.
William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples.
Laura Spinney, Pale Rider. The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.
World Health Organisation AIDS: Images of the Epidemic.
Hans Zinnser, Rats, Lice and History.

Learning and teaching methods

These will take the form of lectures and seminars, with some occasional showing of films.



Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Analysis of a documentary source (1500 words)    35% 
Coursework   Comparative essay (3000 words)    65% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Jeremy Krikler, email:
Belinda Waterman, Department of History, 01206 872313



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
No lecture recording information available for this module.


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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