Epidemics & the Humanities

The humanities can provide us with many important insights during our current public health crisis. Check out the links below to explore epidemics and disease in historical and literary contexts.


Yellow FeverHeld Friday, July 17, 5 pm
Matthew Carey, John Edgar Wideman and The Racist Foundations of American Yellow Fever Literature
Presented by Dr. Donald Pease (Dartmouth)

American writers regard epidemics as cultural agencies capable of performing significant social and political actions as well as biological events that exert long-lasting and wide-ranging effects on the national body politic. In his 1793 account of the Yellow Fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia in 1793, the Irish immigrant Matthew Carey claims that Philadelphia brought the contagion on itself through the "prodigality and dissipation" that he associates with Philadelphia’s Free Blacks (whom he describes as 'naturally" immune to the disease) and the city’s welcoming displaced blacks from Saint Domingue, to sow the seeds of sedition, slave rebellion, and political corruption in what was then the nation’s capital. Matthew Carey inaugurated a tradition of American yellow fever literature that racialized the disease. In his talk, he will focus on the contemporary implications of the African-American novelist John Edgar Wideman’s response to Carey in his 1989 narrative 'Fever.' 


Black DeathHeld Friday, July 24, 4 pm
From ‘Black Death’ to ‘New World’: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron
Presented by Dr. Michael William Wyatt (Dartmouth)

Written in the wake of the plague that devastated Europe between 1346 and 1353, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron is a remarkable book that served both to fix the calamity in his fellow Florentine’s collective memory and to point the way to a wide range of possibilities for imagining the future. This talk will first take into consideration Boccaccio’s eye-witness account of the ‘Black Death’ in Florence (that killed upwards of two-thirds of the city’s population over eight months in 1348) and then explore one of the ten days of narrated stories around which the Decameron is organized, in order to provide a glimpse of the new world Boccaccio sought to frame from the ruins of the old order.  WATCH the recorded program 

Additional Resources

UNH COVID-19 webinar series, Session 10: Pandemics through History

Graziella Parati (Italian Studies, Dartmouth College) “The Betrothed and The Italian Plague of 1630”

Colin Calloway (History, Dartmouth College) “Smallpox in Early America”

Cecilia Gaposchkin (History, Dartmouth College) “The Black Death”

The Black Death: Narrative & Overview

The Black Death: The Disease

The Black Death: Religious Responses

The Black Death: Jews

The Black Death: Medical Responses

The Black Death: Arts & Culture

The Black Death: Long Term

Deborah Nichols (Anthropology, Dartmouth College) “Empires and Epidemics in the Americas: Aztecs, Incas, and Spanish”

Readings on the history of quarantine, contagious disease, viruses, infections, and epidemics offer important context for the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

A gallery of historical plague doctor costumes

This audio episode of Frontline from PBS features Dr. Jelani Cobb (Columbia University) exploring the relationship between race, police, and the COVID-19 pandemic in our current moment

Check out the Influenza Encyclopedia, and online project by the University of Michigan that documents the 1918-1919 pandemic

Read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)

Listen to an audio recording of "The Masque of the Red Death" read by Public Programs Manager, Dr. Tricia Peone

Read Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)