Since the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, the frightening possibility of a world torn apart by a deadly infectious disease has suddenly become a reality. As we grapple with the current crisis, we are all becoming increasingly aware that the present sense of social and cultural unravelling is not unique in human history, and that our own experiences echo profoundly with those of the past.

The public history project Experiencing Epidemics stems from our desire, as historians, to explore personal narratives drawn from the long history of people’s encounters with epidemics. To better understand the social and cultural impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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?

Although epidemics may be construed as singular social phenomena, the experiences of them are as diverse as there are people. Many factors, including social class, profession, religion, gender, race, and political orientation, influence our perceptions and attitudes in such times. We believe listening to the stories of others can help contextualize our own experiences and contribute to the ongoing process of interpreting the events around us.  

The contributions to this project come from scholars specializing in intellectual history, the history of science and medicine, disease control, mobility, trade, as well as culture, community building, race, and gender. Their podcasts focus on a small number of documentary, literary, or material sources, to bring the past to life and provide diverse and thought-provoking insights into the emotive, intellectual, social, and political challenges faced by individuals and communities throughout history.

We believe that comparing our own experiences with those of people who lived centuries before us showcases the tensions between attitudes that are universally human and what is instead historically specific, between radically different and strangely familiar understandings of the events and practices that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront of our everyday lives.

We realize that our conversations may touch upon sensitive and debate-provoking topics. As such, we strive to provide an inclusive platform for our contributors, readers, and listeners that is respectful of different voices and that can provide an occasion for collective exchange and growth.

The EUI’s COVID-19 Knowledge Hub

Experiencing Epidemics is one of the seventeen projects supported by the COVID-19 Knowledge Hub of the European University Institute (EUI). The goal of the Knowledge Hub is to promote new research and public engagement across the humanities and social sciences on the COVID-19 crisis. Individual projects strive to tackle current challenges within their own disciplinary traditions, using a myriad of approaches and methodologies. Although Experiencing Epidemics is part of this collective effort to understand where the COVID-19 emergency has plunged us and what comes next, the ideas and views discussed and disseminated on this platform remain those of its individual contributors and editors.

The music of Experiencing Epidemics

The music for Experiencing Epidemics podcast was composed and almost entirely performed by Anton Serdeczny. Anton is an early modern historian, as well as a composer and musician. He specializes in lullabies, Bartók’s legacy, and European traditional folk music. His music has been played at the Chatelet theatre of Paris and recorded on both CD and vinyl disks. Find his work on Bandcamp and Wax Buyers Club.