Merle Eisenberg, SESYNC, Co-Founder The Middle Ages for Educators
Teaching medieval diseases and pandemics, especially the plague, has become, not surprisingly, more central to courses on medieval history over the last few months. Luckily, the medieval studies community includes many generous and talented colleagues eager to share their expertise and resources. Below you will find some open-access material the Middle Ages for Educators has collected including background material, primary sources, and short lessons on reactions to plague. We also offer more background reading on plague and pandemics by searching those keywords.
Background on the Plague
You can find some great background about the biology and history of the plague on the Infectious Historians podcast episode entitled “Plagues in Human History,” which can also be found on most major podcasting networks. If your students want to know more about the two major outbreaks, the Justinianic Plague and the Black Death, there are additional episodes on each of them as well. This podcast is co-hosted by Merle Eisenberg and the website has links to additional readings, some of which are open-access.
Jessica Goldberg at UCLA has provided us with her own translation and commentary of the famous 1348 Ordinances of Pistoia. The Ordinances were issued upon the arrival of the plague early in the Spring of 1348 (March or April) and are the city’s response about a month later. Her wonderful translation also includes artwork that really give a unique idea of what was happening in Pistoia when the plague struck.
Merle Eisenberg also uploaded a video, sources, and questions for teaching the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 CE). He has provided a mini lesson for teaching students about what its impact may (or may not) have been.
Reactions to Plague
Dan Smail’s video and lesson plan about the effect of the Black Death on a single woman and her family in Marseille is definitely a great way to discuss the individual impact of this disease. It is one thing to think about the mortality rate of a pandemic or its impact on governments, but Smail offers a micro-history that demonstrates how the diseases devastated families, through various other viewpoints such as legal history, gender, and disability studies. He tells a powerful story of the past that has striking resonances for the present.
Abigail Agresta has also written a wonderful, short blog post on the Infectious Historians website that offers a way into how medieval people responded to the outbreak of the Black Death. Like many of us today, there were only so many options that people living in the medieval period had and she offers a source on them plus a short discussion. Her blog post could be a useful interactive exercise to do with your students as another way to teach the outbreak of the Black Death.