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"Epidemic Disease and the Urban Fabric"

Attend this seminar with visiting professor Samuel Cohn, professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow

Oplysninger om arrangementet


Mandag 23. maj 2022,  kl. 13:00 - 16:00


Aarhus Universitet, Nobelparken, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 5, building 1463-515


Ass. Professor Niels Brimnes and Department of History and Classical studies

The social distancing and lockdowns experienced during Covid-19 pandemic is routinely understood as the last in a long sequence of epidemics that impacted on urban design and the fabric of urban life. The extent and nature of this impact must, however, to be carefully historicized, because the relation is neither straightforward nor ubiquitous. This seminar aims to explore specific examples of the relation between epidemic disease and urban space and governance in order to provide a contextualized understanding of the intersection between disease and the urban fabric.

Program of the seminar: 

13:00 – 13:10, Jakob Bek-Thomsen (Aarhus University): 

Welcome and introductory remarks


13:10 – 14:00, Samuel Cohn (University of Glasgow):

Did the Black Death or successive plagues of the second Pandemic Reshape Cities?

Before turning to the Black Death, I will briefly reflect on pandemics during the 19th and early twentieth centuries—cholera, tuberculosis, and the ‘Third Pandemic of Plague’ and their direct consequences on urban planning and reshaping. I then will argue that the Black Death and subsequent waves of plagues during the Second Pandemic had few, if any, direct consequences for urban renewal; rather the changes in urban structures were of second-tier causation. Here, my concentration will be on Florence. The absence of plagues’ direct and immediate stimuli for urban re-shaping, I will argue, were surprising, given the new consciousness of infection and contagion ushered in immediately by the Black Death in 1348 and the more or less progressive developments in preventive controls against plague across Europe and especially Italy from plague legislation in 1348 through the early modern period.


14:00 – 14:30, Morten Arnika Skydsgaard (Steno Museum, Aarhus University):

Consequences of the Copenhagen cholera epidemic in 1853

The city council had been warned that the stench and filth created perfect conditions for a cholera outbreak. As the epidemic ravaged the city, it opened the eyes of the upper-middle class, the medical community and the authorities – leading to serious reflection. More specifically, hundreds of daily house inspections, done by doctors and a corps of volunteers, revealed the miserable living conditions and reported them in writing to the authorities. This systematic documentation of urban squalor moved the city council to change the housing laws and the handling of drinking water and latrine waste. The house inspections demonstrated high civic engagement in a disastrous situation with authorities that failed to act adequately.


14:30 – 14:45 COFFEE


14: 45 – 15:15, Mikkel Thelle (National Museum, Copenhagen):

Contagion and urban porosity between cholera and COVID

In 1925, Walter Benjamin analyzed Naples as a city where private and public, inside and outside, decay and emergence had been inverted. Using his notion of a ‘porous city’ as the point of departure, the talk will look at changing relations of space, contagion and sociality in Copenhagen as site of different epidemic waves.


15:15 – 15:45, Niels Brimnes (Aarhus University):

The third plague pandemic and the social fabric of three cities

As the third plague pandemic hit Bombay, Cape Town and San Francisco around 1900, it interacted with existing social urban dynamics in distinctive ways. The impact of the plague varied between the three cities, because plague latched onto different social and spatial dynamics. Overall, the impact of the plague seemed to be an acceleration of existing trends within the urban fabric.


15:45 – 16:00 Jakob Bek-Thomsen (Aarhus University):

Observations and concluding Remarks


See poster for the event.

Dr. Samuel R. Cohn is professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, but has written extensively on plague and other epidemic disease from antiquity to the present. In 2018 he published Epidemics: Hate and Compassion form the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford University Press).