COOL CLASSES: “Plagues, Diseases, and Epidemics in History”

This history course examines the theories and strategies that people developed to explain the advent and spread of individual plagues and epidemics.

Class name: “Plagues, Diseases, and Epidemics in History”

Taught by:  Associate Professor of History Darin Hayton


Here’s what Hayton had to say about his class:

“Plagues, Diseases, and Epidemics in History” explores four significant epidemics that shape much of Western history: the 5th-century BCE plague of Athens, Justinian’s plague of the 6th century CE (often referred to as the first pandemic); the so-called Black Death; and the French Disease or Great Pox (today we often equate this with syphilis). My goal in this course is to give students the chance to see that epidemics are not simply, or even primarily, medical or biological events. Moreover, I want students to see how epidemics are also not related in any obvious way to morbidity or mortality rates. I want students to investigate how societies have reacted in these particular moments of stress. Epidemics are, in this approach, occasions for a society to express and legitimize cultural values. Despite the 2000 years between Thucydides’s Plague of Athens and our contemporary world, societal response, both scientific/medical responses as well as public health responses, share a disturbing number of features.

I designed this course because historic responses to epidemics offer the ideal material to see how humans tend to fall back on bias, prejudice, fear, anxiety, unacknowledged values, and dogma (to name just a few important aspects) when they identify and try to explain of an epidemic. These past examples allow students to see how societies have deployed logic and reason grounded in profoundly problematic assumptions. I hoped to give students the opportunity to develop habits of analysis that they could then use in thinking through our contemporary responses to whatever plague du jour is poised to annihilate us. It is startling to see similarities between our explanations of and reactions to the latest epidemic, e.g., SARS, and the reactions of medieval peoples.


See what other courses the Department of History is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.