This page is part of the New Jersey state guidelines for public education. Additional pages are in progress to address all core Social Studies areas pertaining to Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. We are excited to bring Middle Ages for Educators to teachers of Middle School and High School subjects in New Jersey, and eventually in many more states!
It is especially apt to begin publishing guides having to do with plague and pestilence. Not only does the topic dominate news cycles and social studies classes, but it was also the initial context for the creation of Middle Ages for Educators!
Introducing Plague as a Topic for Social Studies
Here are some preliminary ideas and questions that will help connect students with videos and other materials on this topic.
"How does plague impact people who don't get sick?"
- One valuable aim is to get students discussing plague and pandemic in terms beyond the obvious (but ultimately narrow) paradigm of sickness and health.
- Briefly lead students through constructing a list or diagram of other affected persons (survivors, merchants/businesspersons, political leaders, etc.). See if students can offer remarks on how these people experience a public health event in differing ways.
"What are the kinds of sources that would tell us about the impact of the plague in Europe?"
- See if students can think of the kinds of texts, objects, and other media that would offer insight into a major historical event such as the plague.
- In the resources below, historical data is drawn from disparate sources, such as a household inventory sheet, a town's petition for support, as well as sources having to do with art and music.
"How can we evaluate the accuracy/objectivity of the primary sources?"
- Misinformation has been among the most vexing problems associated with COVID-19. If students are able to point out examples of contemporary misinformation that have increased the negative impact of COVID-19, they are prepared to relate to similar issues that afflicted people in the past. This, in turn, can illuminate our contemporary situation.
- As we read texts slowly and with attention to detail, we can begin to sort through credible and less-credible sources for history. For example, in the accompanying video on the early spread of the plague in Europe, around the 4' 52'' mark, Dr. Hannah Barker shows that the textbook source for the spread of the plague "was not an eyewitness to the events." She then shows how a local petition turns out to be helpful for fact-finding in a way that Gabriele de' Mussi's plague treatise cannot be.
- Consider using this lesson as an opportunity to use collaborative reading, maps, and other resources found on the site.
1. Introducing the "Three Great Plagues" of Recorded History
Pandemics are complex phenomena, impacting and disrupting many areas of life beyond just health concerns. This video introduces historical pandemic studies in a pedagogical-friendly manner. The subject matter is the late antique Justinianic Plague, the first of the "three great recorded plagues."
The complete passage on Procopius and the Plague in Constantinople can be found online at the Fordham Source Book on Plague.
- See this video lesson's main page for further sources and helpful information.
2. The Spread of Plague
How did massive health events such as historical pandemics get started and continue their momentum? The following video and lesson offers an introduction to the current understanding of the early spread of the Black Death.
Primary Source: Petition from the Residents of Caffa, 1347
Mussis, Gabriele de’. “The Arrival of the Plague.” In The Black Death, ed. Rosemary Horrox, 14-26. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Other resources and helpful discussion points can be found on this video lesson's main page.
3. Life and Daily Business During a Plague
As we've learned during COVID-19's spread, the business of society doesn't just grind to a halt because of rampant death and illness. The following video helpfully illustrates how in the distant past, people attended to a variety of concerns. Not only can we learn about historical subjects, but we can also illuminate something about human behavior and social precedent through such examples.
This video introduces Alayseta Paula, a fourteenth-century inhabitant of Marseille and survivor of the Black Death who asks forgiveness for bringing her legal business to court past the required date.
Primary sources, with questions for discussion, can also be downloaded here
Click here for a transcript of this video.
See this video lesson's main page for further reading and other helpful information.
4. Cultural Impact of Plague: Visual Art
Public health events provide ample materials for people to reflect on, often creatively, and often for many years following the actual plague itself. We may reflect, for instance, on the cultural impact of COVID-19 in music, television, and other media formats.
The following video introduces historical reflections on a cultural phenomenon of danse macabre as a visual representation of death. Includes materials that intersect with later expressions and movements, such as materials from the Romantic Era, for instance.
- Primary source: High-resolution image of the Marmion danse macabre altarpiece
- For further reading and discussion topics/questions, see the video's main page.
5. Cultural Impact of Plague: Music
This video examines how art and music represented the difficulties of the Black Death in Tuscany in the fourteenth century.
Primary Source: Detail from The Triumph of Death, by Buonamico Buffalmacco, fresco, Campo Santo, Pisa, c. 1338-39
Effects of Good Government on the City Life, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, 1338.
Further resources are available on this video lesson's main page.
- Visit and bookmark the Infectious Historians webpage for ongoing podcast content and more!