4 Dec 2015 - 5 Dec 2015 All day CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge


Registration is now closed for this event. For information, email the Plague project team.

Convened by

Dr Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge

Dr Nicholas Evans, University of Cambridge

It has become a truism to state that in times of epidemic infection, the bodies of the dead become morally, ontologically, and infrastructurally problematic. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when burials and the handling of corpses became arenas of contestation through which both local and scientific ‘cultures’ were placed on trial.

Historically, burials and the treatment of human corpses in the time of epidemics have become sites of obvious and apparent contestation. Examples include issues of profanity during the “Plague of Athens” (430BC); allegations of the catapulting of infected corpses in the Middle Ages; Defoe’s descriptions of the breakdown of burial norms during the London Plague of 1665; colonial concerns over “body dumping” in the streets of fin de siècle Hong Kong, and the Pasteurian problematisation of Malagasy reburial rites as a mode of spreading plague in modern Madagascar. Furthermore, burial grounds and plague pits serve not only as condensed spaces of cultural heritage, but are increasingly approached as biological archives (aDNA).

This conference will expand the discursive space that such narratives have created, by asking; how can we problematize the perception and treatment of corpses in situations of infectious disease outbreaks? How can we denaturalize burial as an obvious space of political and ethical contestation? What kinds of pollution narrative are specific to epidemic situations, and how have these historically interacted with arguments over contagion and infection? Moreover, how does the handling of the polluted corpse come to impact upon descriptions of the healthy body? Indeed, what is the place of the healthy body in a political economy geared toward answering the question of how to dispose of the corpse?

We invite papers from across the medical humanities (anthropology, medical history, sociology, geography, etc.) as well as from public health perspectives. Potential delegates are encouraged to consider these topics:

  • visual representations of corpses and burials during epidemics or as vectors of infection
  • burials as sites of social conflict and resistance during epidemics
  • autopsy in the context of epidemics.
  • medical problematisations of urban burial grounds as sources of infection.
  • technologies, practices, and the labour of burials in relation to infection and epidemics.
  • body hiding and body dumping in the course of epidemics.

Abstracts of no more than 200 words are to be sent to Nicholas Evans (ne228@cam.ac.uk) by the 1st July. Accommodation for two nights will be provided to speakers free of charge. Some funding is available for travel – please inquire when sending your abstract.

Visiting CRASSH

Information on finding CRASSH, based at 7 West Road, Cambridge.


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 336564


£25 (£15 for students)

Contact & Further Information

Contact the convenors


Friday 4 December
8:45 - 9:00


9:00 - 9:15


9:15 - 11:25

Panel 1 – Cemeteries and Pits

Ann Carmichael (Indiana University) Plague and Postmortem Inspections in Renaissance Milan

Rebecca Redfern (Museum of London) & Sharon DeWitte (University of South Carolina) Plague in Medieval London: Perspectives from the East Smithfield Cemetery

Lukas Englemann (University of Cambridge) The Burial Pit as Bio-historical Archive

Shawn Phillips (Indiana State University) Vampires, Stigma and Devotion: Archaeology of Mortuary Position in Public vs. Family Burials During Epidemics (USA)

Discussant: John Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London and Wolfson College, Cambridge)

11:25 - 11:45

Coffee and tea

11:45 - 13:15

Panel 2 – Burial Ritual and Rites

Teodora Daniela Sechel (University of Graz) Bodies and Epidemics in South East Europe (1800 – 1900)

Branwyn Poleykett (University of Cambridge) Ritual, Hygiene, and Ordinary Deaths: Burial in Colonial Madagascar

Joelle Rollo-Koster (University of Rhode Island) Burying the Pope in the Late Middle Ages

 Discussant: Irene Galandra Cooper (University of Cambridge)

13:15 - 14:30


14:30 - 16:00

Panel 3 – The Politics of Burial and Contagion

Samuel Cohn (University of Glasgow) Fear, Myths and Violations: The Corpse and Burial in Cholera and Plague Riots Compared

Amanda Morton (George Mason University) Procopius’ Plague: Chaos and Détente in Sixth Century Constantinople

Edna Bonhomme (Princeton University) Epidemics and Mass Burials: Fieldwork on the Dead

Discussant: Dionysios Stathakopolous (King’s College London)

17:00 - 18:30

Public lecture by James Fairhead (University of Sussex)

Attacking Humanitarians: Ebola and the Breakdown of social accommodations over burials, political subjection and economic appropriation in the Republic of Guinea

Keynote address, open to the public

Saturday 5 December
9:00 - 10:30

Panel 4 – Visual Cultures of Infection & Corpses

Lizzie Oliver (University of Leeds) The Art of Cholera: Revulsion and Reverence in the Art of Southeast Asian Captivity

Michael Anton Budd (Salve Regina University) Composing and Decomposing Bodies: Photographing Death and Disease in an Era of Global War, Pestilence and Famine

Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge) Plague as War: The Photography of Corpses in Manchuria

Discussant: Rupert Stasch (University of Cambridge)

10:30 - 11:00

Coffee and tea

11:00 - 12:30

Panel 5 – Animal Cadavers & Human Infection

Nick Evans (University of Cambridge) The infected human and the infecting rat: understanding the visualisation of bodies across species during plague in colonial India

David Luesink (University of Pittsburgh) Live and Dead Animals in Early Republican Chinese Plague Research

Deborah Nadal (Ca’ Foscari University Venice) Parsi Sky Burials in Mumbai: the Risk of Contamination Now that Vultures are Gone

Discussant: Maryon MacDonald (University of Cambridge)

12:30 - 13:00

Final discussion and close


Edna Bonhomme, Princeton University

Epidemics and mass burial: fieldwork on the dead

In Rajab 1205 AH/March 1791 CE, a plague outbreak occurred in Greater Cairo resulting in the death of 30,000 to 60,000 of Cairo’s 600,000 inhabitants. Throughout the epidemic, Cairo had a mortuary problem where some groups lacked commemoration and others were rendered invisible. ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī, the author of Ajāʾib al-āthār fī ʾl-tarājim waʾl- akhbār, remarked that the epidemic was so great that: “they were digging pits for those in Giza near the mosque of Abū Hurairah and throwing them in it”. The mass burial and its organic and non-organic matter were considered objects of contagion, which meant that it could afflict anyone irrespective of that person’s social status. This paper focuses on burial sites (both marked and unmarked) in Cairo during the 1791 epidemic and pays specific attention to ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al- Jabartī’s reference and how the site looks today using ArcGIS and photography. Ancillary to this, I will try to layout the possibilities for why this mass burial occurred during the epidemic.


Michael Anton Budd, Salve Regina University

Composing and decomposing bodies: photographing death and disease in an era of global war, pestilence, and famine

My paper will explore mass death and new means used to record it. My previous work examined pictorial focused physical culture in light of the subsequent carnage of the First World War. Photography helped to celebrate a new emphasis on a perfected male physique and yet during the war not a single photo of a corpse was published in the British press.  At war's end came the Influenza of 1918-19, which left a greater number of corpses in its wake.  In these two cases what did photography reveal, conceal, miss or distort? How were corpses photographed and for what uses; in which situations were images censored or photography forbidden? How did visual technologies echo and call into question taboos and myths of pollution? What political, cultural and public health precedents were set and how did they relate to countervailing tendencies such as the veneration of fallen youth or the cultural amnesia of the Spanish Flu?  Finally, following up on my previous research, how did these cataclysmic producers of corpses influence views of the idealized or healthy body?


Ann G. Carmichael, Indiana University, Bloomington IN

Plague and post-mortem inspections in Renaissance Milan

Urban mortality registers from 15th and early 16th century Milan permit inquiry into an interesting aspect of epidemic-related burial practices. In Milan and some other urbanized areas of northern and north-central Italy, parish elders needed secular authorization to bury members of their parish communities. Recurrences of plague in Milan and its suburbs furthermore stimulated these civic authorities to adopt a range of practices that they deemed useful components of a plague early-warning system. Evidence from the Milanese registers examined in this paper reflects the intersection of civic burial licensing and plague surveillance. Milan’s innovative public health department created its own specialized medical staff to determine whether cases of worrisome acute illness or deaths were in fact due to plague. The consequences of such diagnosis were socially and economically dire for households, thus the expertise and trustworthiness of the Health Department certifiers were crucial, stabilising components of epidemic control. Analyzing hundreds of cases where the evidence is strong, I will focus on the procedures and criteria that public physicians and surgeons used to diagnose new household cases of plague by direct visual inspections of nude cadavers.


Samuel Cohn, University of Glasgow

Fear, myths and violations: the corpse and burial in cholera and plague riots compared

Ever since Barthold Georg Niebuhr’s Lectures on Ancient History in 1816, if not before, scholars have invariably depicted epidemics as demoralizing societies and giving rise to hate, violence, and the stigmatisation of the ‘Other’. For some reason, the charity and sacrifices of individuals or entire communities during epidemics have been mostly overlooked. But more disturbing has been scholars’ failures to analyse reactions to epidemics historically, to observe emotional and ideological differences towards epidemics over time, and to detect that different diseases have tended to affect collective mentalities differently. Two diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—cholera and plague—certainly led to mass violence with riots of upwards to 20,000, class struggle, and the creation of myths of physicians, the state, and others intentionally poisoning wells, food, and hospital patients or inventing these diseases to kill off the poor. As with Ebola in West Africa in 2014-15, the provocation of violence and hatred often stemmed from a clash of cultures over burial practices and rituals and suspicions about violations to the corpses of the diseased. These clashes of cultures were not only ones between Shropshire riflemen and worshippers at mud huts in Calcutta or Bombay, they also divided communities and led to cholera riots in New York City, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Hamburg, Verbicaro, Taranto, Tashkent (on the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border), and many other cities, towns and villages in Europe from 1831 to 1911. This paper will sketch the reactions to these two pandemic diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the two to manifest the most violent social reactions globally. It will begin with their commonalities but end by showing their striking differences over time and space, and their diverging ideologies of hatred, cooperation, science, and class struggle.  


Lukas Engelmann, University of Cambridge

The burial pit as bio-historical archive

Recent historical research on the bubonic plague has been heavily impacted by bio-historical data. Ancient DNA, the technology to trace bacteria in human remains, has turned burial grounds from places reminiscent of epidemic disasters into resourceful bio-historical archives. Mobilizing the tools of retrospective diagnostics the burial pit has become a popular site to apply science to the writing of historical narratives of the plague. This paper will interrogate the methodological underpinnings of the hereby-intended ‘validation’ of history through science. Addressing the burial pit as a bio-historical archive allows for a critical evaluation of the making of plague history and plague biology as an entangled endeavour. 


Nicholas Evans, University of Cambridge

The infected human and the infecting rat: understanding the visualisation of bodies across species during plague in colonial India

A number of historians have noted how the infected human body became a site of problematisation, anxiety, and even panic when plague broke out in Bombay in 1896. Less well understood are visualisations of the rat body/corpse during this same period, which coincided with scientific work that linked the animal to the plague. While elsewhere in the world, the rat was very quickly personified as plague, in India we can observe a process in which the rat body was transformed, via a process of labour, into a value-free vector of disease. This seemingly innocuous detail tells us much about relationships of colonial power in India during the first decade of the 20th century.


James Fairhead, University of Sussex

Attacking Humanitarians: Ebola and the breakdown of social accommodations over burials, political subjection, and economic appropriation in the Republic of Guinea

As the Ebola crisis became ‘exponential’ in September 2014, a delegation of senior politicians, doctors, NGO staff and journalists were attacked during a visit to Districts in the Forest Region of Guinea whilst informing communities about Ebola. Eight were murdered. This paper seeks to understand the fear that many Guineans felt towards Ebola response initiatives and why the educators, treatment centres and burial teams regularly encountered resistance, occasionally violent. Such resistance and the distrust behind it was catastrophic not only for attackers and attacked alike, but also for the epidemic, as early in the epidemic it undermined health communication, the isolation of the ill, safe burials, contact tracing and quarantine early on, and so facilitated its spread.

Why were humanitarian workers often greeted in this way? What mistakes were being made in their community relations?  Explanations at the intersection of local and humanitarian ‘culture’ and ‘structural violence’ certainly help, but this talk seeks answers in the particular way that the disease and humanitarian response unsettled three precarious social ‘accommodations’ that had become established in the region – between the existing burial practices and hospital medicine, between local political structures and external political subjection, and between mining/conservation interests, and those whose lands they work. Ebola – as a disease and social phenomenon –  disrupted these established but precarious accommodations that had hitherto enabled radically different and massively unequal worlds to coexist. 


David Luesink, University of Pittsburgh

Live and dead animals in early Republican Chinese plague research

If Chinese medicine has had a long history of using animals to aid in healing humans, this relationship entered a new phase with the coming of the medical research laboratory after 1910. Over twenty years of operation, the Manchurian Plague Prevention Service used a large number of wild and domesticated animals to answer questions deemed vital to understanding and controlling the spread of plague. Laboratory animals included the largely domesticated rat and guinea pig, but also the fierce Siberian marmot, known also as the tarbagan. This paper will explore the trajectory of the early use and disposal of these animals in Chinese laboratory and field work in Manchuria and place this in the context of Japanese and Russian use of animals in plague related endeavours during the same period. It will also explore some of the ethical, cultural, and biological boundaries of the relationship between human, animal, and animal corpse in Chinese labs in conversation with the work of Donna Haraway and other post-humanities scholars.


Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge

Plague as war: the photography of corpses in Manchuria

In the rich photographic record of the first Manchurian pneumonic plague epidemic of 1910-1911 the Russian album “Plague in Manchuria” stands out in its unrestrained and provocative depiction of human corpses. Breaking with the norm of non-representation of the deceased in the course of the third plague pandemic, the photographs of this album saw wide circulation and republication in the international press at the time. This paper examines this notorious moment in epidemic photography by recontextualising it within photographic practices unfolding in Manchuria at the beginning of the twentieth century. In particular, whilst acknowledging the aesthetic and ethical breach introduced by the album within the framework of plague photography, it argues that we should also read the macabre spectacle offered by it in continuum with the photographic production accompanying the Russian-Japanese War, five years earlier. The paper hence argues that the Russian plague album of 1911 represents a high point in the integration of the genre of war photography in the emergence of epidemic photography as a distinct visual regime arising for the first time out of the third plague pandemic.


Amanda Morton, George Mason University

Procopius's plague: chaos and détente in sixth century Constantinople

Surviving narratives of the Justinianic plague focus on the disposal of bodies during its initial outbreak in 542 AD. This paper will explore Procopius’s treatment of the dead as an allegory for the feverish pitch of political tensions in Constantinople under Justinian, and the way in which his narrative evokes the fears of a sixth century city in flux. For Procopius, Justinian's historian, the practice of disposing of the dead resulted in a temporary détente among the city's warring factions, leading to a much-needed settling of hostilities in a city rocked by riots and martial law. Even as ritual burial practices and the separation between cemetery and city began to fail, the organized practice of removing the dead from the streets and houses of Constantinople temporarily soothed political and religious fires. As plague pits and empty towers filled to bursting with bodies, newly immune survivors no longer feared the contagion and resumed the city's descent into anarchy. This brief moment of united purpose stands out against the violence of sixth century Constantinople. By diverging from the classical idea of plague as an instantaneous destructor of social norms, Procopius makes evident the depth of the chaos already present in his city.


Deborah Nadal, Ca’ Foscari University Venice

Parsi sky burials in Mumbai: the risk of contamination now that vultures are gone

Mumbai, in India, hosts the largest Parsi community in the world. Parsi funeral customs are focused on keeping contagion away from the community and the environment. In order to dispose of corpses as safely as possible, sky burial is the preferred practice. Instead of burning or burying their corpses, Parsis laid them out on a purpose built tower (dakhma) to be exposed to the sun and eaten by scavenger birds such as vultures. As this process only takes a few hours, it allows a body to be consumed before dangerous corruption sets in. Nowadays, the greatest threat to this practice is the ecological disaster visited in recent years on vultures, who are almost extinct because of a drug, diclofenac, which they ingest when feeding on cattle who have been treated with this medicine. While vultures are able to safely digest dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, they cannot cope with diclofenac-infected cattle carcasses. With so few vultures left, the Parsi community is desperately trying to find other alternatives, such as solar collectors. But for the time being they are not winning their centuries-long fight against contamination and the risk of spreading diseases and infections into the environment.


Lizzie Oliver, University of Leeds

The art of cholera: revulsion and reverence in the art of Southeast Asian captivity

Tropical disease was rife in the POW camps of Southeast Asia during the Second World War. Epidemics of dysentery and malaria were ubiquitous, with tropical ulcers, beri-beri, typhoid and pneumonia also prevalent in areas where troops were forced to undertake hard labour on starvation diets. The most feared of all infections was cholera, and outbreaks in camps on the Thailand-Burma railway claimed hundreds of lives. Drawing on the work of POW artists such as Charles Thrale, Jack Chalker and Ray Parkin in this paper I examine the visual record of cholera in Southeast Asian camps, with the pictures themselves as visceral as the subject they depicted: artists used blood as paint pigment and hair for brush bristles. As reportage, documentary evidence and life narrative, POW art has provoked a variety of responses among its viewers. Whilst at least one exhibition removed images of ‘horror’ from its walls, other depictions of ‘the choleras’ have been heralded as quintessential representations of Far Eastern captivity. I therefore consider why post-war depictions of cholera have been both revered and reviled by audiences, and how these responses have influenced the remembrance of this difficult history.


Shawn M. Phillips, Indiana State University

Vampires, stigma, and devotion: archaeology of mortuary position in public vs. family burials during epidemics (USA)

This study examines the archaeology of mortuary positioning of corpses during epidemic outbreaks.  Diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, influenza, and even disabilities could, at times, affect treatment of a corpse.  The analysis demonstrates that a wide range of diseases resulted in differential treatment of corpses, reflecting social attitudes of the infection that often transferred fears or stigmatized notions to the recently departed.  Furthermore, this mortuary analysis reveals that respect and close relations could overcome fears during epidemic outbreaks, permitting a full mourning of individuals whose death resulted from infectious mortal agents.  The analysis contrasts mortuary studies from “public” burials from tax-supported entities such as poor houses and other similar institutions and from family cemeteries from across North America during the 17th to 19th centuries.  Although mortuary practices have remained conservative in the US, this study demonstrates moments when social attitudes could supersede mortuary customs and moments when devotion could ease fears of infection.  The greatest contrast, perhaps, is the distinction of who is conducting the burial.  Family burials often buffered the recently departed from the harsh attitudes of stigma, while public burials exposed the corpse to the full brunt of social judgment. 


Branwyn Poleykett, University of Cambridge

Ritual, hygiene, and ordinary deaths: burial in colonial Madagascar

The arrival of plague in the Madagascan highlands in the 1920s precipitated a clash between norms of colonial hygiene and Merina practices of relating to and burying the dead. I first consider the conflicts between these two social worlds via a consideration of the forms of moral reasoning each gave to putrefaction, diagnosis and quarantine. I then read granular mortality data from the late 1930s and 1940s examining how plague deaths became ordinary deaths. 


Rebecca Redfern, Museum of London, Centre for Human Bioarchaeology (presenting), & Sharon DeWitte, University of South Carolina, Department of Anthropology

Plague in medieval London: perspectives from the East Smithfield cemetery

The East Smithfield cemetery, excavated between 1986-8, remains one of the few archaeologically investigated plague cemeteries in Europe.  Primary source evidence shows that it was established by King Edward III and the City of London in response to the outbreak of plague in southwestern England in 1348, with the burial ground used into the 20th century for a variety purposes, including the Royal Mint. The site provides a unique insight into how the government sought to manage the epidemic in the biggest urban centre in England, with the archaeological evidence for body disposal and burial organisation revealing that despite the social upheaval wrought by the plague, burials were well-organised and followed religious traditions, with the presence of clothing and coin-purses suggesting that the bodies were respected during collection and disposal. A total of 636 individuals have been intensively analysed since the late 1980s, and in recent years have been subject to multidisciplinary studies, including DNA and stable isotope analyses.  These have provided incredible insights into disease identification, population genetics, migration, diet, and the impact of famine and climate shocks during the 14th century.   Much of this evidence is relevant to contemporary populations, such as the proposed conferred immunity to HIV for the descendants of Black Death survivors.  The diverse wealth of evidence demonstrates the importance of such collections for understanding how urban areas respond to catastrophic events, and the health and make-up of a population before and after epidemic events. 


Joëlle Rollo-Koster, University of Rhode Island

Burying the pope in the late Middle Ages

Grounded in information provided by ceremonial books of the late Middle Ages, this paper will address the care of the papal corpse for his/its burial. In general, knowledge of medieval ecclesiastical funerary practices comes partly from ceremonial books called ordines. They existed throughout the early Middle Ages with for example, the Ordines Romani centred on the liturgy of the great Roman churches but the most explicit papal funerary ceremonials were the ordines of François de Conzié and Pierre Ameil, both contemporary of the Great Western Schism (1378 -1417), thus at a time when the plague was well incrusted in the West.  Pierre Ameil's ordo covers the death of the pope, focusing more particularly on the pope’s body and its environment, prescribing behaviour during the pope’s agony, embalming, exposition of the corpse, and transport to the funerary chapel. Embalmment, dressing, exposition, the movements of the pope’s body for his various displays all demonstrate a certain objectification of the pope’s body. Once embalmed the pope became a transfiguration of a formerly living creature, a statue that was prepared, dressed, paraded, and eventually put away like so many statues of saints were readied for feast days, to later be returned to their niches. The embalmed body of a dead pope became an object, an icon.  This permutation or reversed transfiguration may have been facilitated by death’s physical likeness to the wide spread wax ex-votos that adorned shrines throughout Europe.


Teodora Daniela Sechel, University of Graz

Bodies  and epidemics in South-East Europe (1800s -1850s)

In 1813 an epidemic of plague started out in Bucharest, the capital of Wallachia, a autonomous Romanian principality, under the Ottoman governance. The Phanariot Prince governing Wallachia at the time, Ioan Caragea/Karadja (1812 -1818), ordered that the bones of Saint Pantelimon, a saint worshiped in the region, to be brought to Bucharest. The priests organized a religious procession thorough the city. People could pray and touch the reliquary in the hope that the plague would be cured. This action resulted in one of the greatest plague epidemic in the nineteenth century, known as Carajes’s plague. Church reports indicate that between June 1813 and June 1814 around 25-30,000 people died in the city (excluding those buried in the backyards), out of around 80,000 inhabitants. My paper is based on memoires and traveller stories and archival documents found in Romanian archives. It shows the ways in which bodies were handled during plague and cholera epidemics in the first half of the nineteenth century, by examining the religious processions, as well as the behaviours used to stop an epidemic. The body of a saint was considered sacred in several Christian denominations. The ritual of praying and touching the reliquary remained, well into the 19th century, one of the most important healing practices in Moldavia and Wallachia, two Romanian Principalities professing Greek Orthodox Christian faith. Orthodoxy, a highly ritualistic denomination, instilled a profound respect for the dead bodies. In spite of this, the fear and panic generated by contagious diseases including plague and cholera generated mishandling or even abuse and robbery of the cadavers. 

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