• Mads Bisgaard Christensen
  • Mads Lykke Christensen
4. term, History, Master (Master Programme)
The current global COVID-19 pandemic, while tragic, presents memory studies with a unique opportunity to enquire into how diseases and plagues of the past are remembered, and this project’s goal is to seize on this very opportunity. While the amount of memory studies in recent decades have been on the rise, the subject of how diseases are remembered has only been covered sparsely at best through dedicated memory studies, even though epidemics and diseases, such as the Spanish flu, present very interesting historic cases for research on collective memory. This project has delved into the remembrance and forgetting of specific diseases throughout world history, in Danish STX Gymnasiums’ history classes (a Danish equivalent to high school), as expressed in 74 different textbooks since 1903. Interviews of present students and teachers of a gymnasium in northern Jutland are included as a complementary case study because of the close connection between the past and present, as identified by scholarly research in collective memory. Furthermore by including several theories of social and collective memory, most notably Paul Connertons seven types of forgetting, we seek to identify and explain mechanisms of remembering and forgetting in both past and present.
While it is clear from our research that the history of epidemics and diseases is not remembered much in Danish history classes since 1903, as is to be expected, the different diseases are remembered and forgotten in quite different ways. Bubonic plague seems to be dominant in both textbooks and present interviews, and there seems to exist a cultural script based on its lethality and the huge toll it took on the populace of medieval Europe. In textbooks it is often clearly remembered in this context, while the plagues of antiquity and past the mid-14th century are relegated to the background. Hygienic aspects of the disease seem especially prevalent in interviews, which could be caused by present restrictions and attention to hygiene. Smallpox seems to be remembered in two aspects: through its vaccination and eradication, and its lethality through the demographic collapse of the American native population during the 16th century. The latter is only remembered in textbooks from the ‘70s and onward, while only the vaccination is brought up in interviews, although it seems to be remembered in a social context outside school, among students, which appears to be a result of the current pandemic and vaccination debate. The Spanish flu seems to be forgotten entirely in Danish gymnasiums until the ‘70s and onward, and even then it is still only mentioned very sparsely with the exception of a textbook from 2020, where it is clearly included as a comparison to COVID-19. Likewise, it had a similarly limited role in interviews. The cause behind the near-omission of Spanish flu in textbooks could stem from the fact that while it killed a larger amount of people in total, it still lacked the lethality and cure for which plague and smallpox are remembered in history classes. It also seems to be the largest victim of forgetting as annulment as a result of prioritisation of the First World War in textbooks, which also seems to be the case in Danish news media from the Spanish flu’s contemporary period. While the limited and short-lived SARS-outbreak of 2002 does not seem to have any notable effect on memory of past diseases, COVID-19 does, as mentioned above. COVID-19 itself, though, already seems to be subject to a process of forgetting as annulment that, more specifically, we call forgetting as fatigue. Students tend to try to ignore the very aspects that other diseases are remembered for, ie. lethality and spread, and instead focus on more practical and behavioural characteristics brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also seems to be the main focus in the 2020 textbook regarding COVID-19. While some current students and teachers express the relevance of past diseases as a result of the current pandemic, they also express no noteworthy wishes to expand the role of diseases in history class in the long run. While predictions are uncertain by nature, it seems that in the future, COVID-19 could be remembered for its effect on human behaviour, if at all, by Danish gymnasiums, since students and teachers already seem to distance themselves from what is remembered of previous epidemics. This is, of course, dependent on the extent of textbook material that will be dedicated to the subject.
Publication date29 May 2021
Number of pages98
External collaboratorStøvring Gymnasium
no name vbn@aub.aau.dk
ID: 413252875