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“Dear Boccaccio”: Teaching the Black Death Online during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Beth Petitjean
Saint Louis University

Covering the Black Death is always a favorite part of teaching a western- or world-history survey course. As a historian of medicine, I spend three or four class periods covering this topic with the goal of students learning how a disease can cause historical change. The first class of the sequence covers the crisis of the fourteenth century, humoral medicine, and ideas of contagion. Students read the introduction to Boccaccio’s The Decameron for the second class, when the entire class time is devoted to discussing the text and the experience of the pestilence in Florence and its countryside.1 Students read a selection of primary sources, such as medical treatises, chronicles, and law codes, from a document collection for the third class.2 These sources show the breadth of the pandemic and allow the students to make comparisons about the consequences of plague throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The last class focuses on the modern epidemiology of Yersinia pestis and plague historiography. In addition to reading the sources and taking a pop quiz on the Decameron excerpt, students write a three-page paper, which meets two learning outcomes for students to analyze primary sources and to effectively communicate in written form. The class discussions on the documents help the students form interpretations that the plague had devastating consequences on the medieval economy or on the social bonds of the family, for example.

In-person class discussions make this sequence work because students actively learn with each other and share ideas about interpretation. In the spring 2020 semester, I was teaching two survey courses—Early Western Civilization and Origins of Sickness and Healing from Antiquity to 1500—at two different universities. Both courses were chronologically in the early Middle Ages when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced universities to convert from in-person instruction to online teaching. Revising the syllabus and figuring out how best to use the online teaching platforms offered an opportunity to revisit how to teach content about a pandemic while in a pandemic. I had two primary concerns. First, how could in-person class discussions be replicated when everyone was separated and may not be able to attend a synchronous class? I worried that the active-learning aspect of student-led, in-person discussions might not be feasible in an online environment and student papers would suffer as a result. Second, how could students use their own observations and reflections on their experiences of living during a pandemic to gain a better insight on the Black Death? Moreover, was there a way to maintain a sense of community during a time of such uncertainty and disturbance?

Although synchronous lectures and asynchronous video recordings, which were supplemented by slides with notes, covered the basic content, I revised the written assignment into a two-part, online discussion post that required a bit of historical imagination. For part 1, students wrote a 500-word letter addressed “Dear Boccaccio.” Students were required to include at least two quotations from the primary sources assigned and to include any observations or connections they could make between the current pandemic and the Black Death. The students were writing as themselves, including anything they thought relevant and asking Boccaccio questions based on what they did not understand in the primary sources. Most students used The Decameron as the primary source to analyze and quote in this part of the assignment. Some students focused on privilege and how many people today had the ability to shelter-in-place while essential workers or those without means were forced to work; students equated this with wealthy Florentines who could flee to a villa in the countryside while the poor remained at risk in the city. Other students compared people who ignored stay-at-home orders to attend church or to go on spring-break trips to Florentines who went about the city eating, drinking, and enjoying life while “shrug[ging] the whole thing off as one enormous joke.”3 One student explained the scarcity of toilet paper (after amusingly explaining what toilet paper is), and asked Boccaccio if he experienced any shortages of goods during the pestilence. Another student expressed concern that Chinese and Chinese Americans might face persecution and be blamed for the spread of the novel coronavirus just like Jews were blamed in the fourteenth century. Nearly every student voiced some fear, concern, or uncertainty about their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Part 2 of the assignment, due a few days later, required students to read through the letters online and to post a 500-word reply as if they were Boccaccio, answering any questions posed in the original letter and sharing more details about the pestilence. Again, students were to use at least two primary sources from the document reader to support their Boccaccio response. Some students replied as Boccaccio with information about cities trying to alleviate the economic despair by regulating wages and the scarcity of some food staples due to the lack of workers.4 One “Boccaccio” mused that the wealthy and privileged in society always had a different experience than the poor and expressed horror at the attacks on the Jewish communities.5 One reply had Boccaccio marveling at the miracle of toilet paper, while another had a shocked Boccaccio expressing dismay that this pestilence was confounding our medical professionals despite the scientific advances made in the intervening centuries.6 Many of the replies offered kernels of hope: humanity had survived the Black Death, it would surely survive COVID-19, too, according to the imagined Boccaccios.

These letters were heartfelt and thoughtful yet were based on student engagement with the sources. One of the skills of the historian is to ask questions of the sources. Students often read primary sources superficially to glean the facts related to the document. In this assignment, students had to go beyond the facts to look at the complexity of the socioeconomic, medical, or religious impacts of the Black Death. The rubric for the assignment was simple: meet the 300-word minimum with a thoughtful and reflective letter that included two direct quotations with proper citation for each part of the assignment to earn full points. The assignment still met the pedagogic goals but did so with a more informal writing style. The creative framework gave students some freedom to think more broadly while getting them to read more closely and to think more critically because they were answering questions posed in the part-1 letters. The online format was a key asset in this regard. Using the online technology allowed students to read each other’s work; this would not have happened with the original written paper submitted only to the instructor. Students helped teach each other the material, responding to and explaining points within the documents and actively learning in the process. This pushed them to analyze the sources more critically than a large group, in-person discussion would have. Additionally, this assignment created a sense of community as students virtually corresponded with a classmate they might not have talked to in person in the classroom.

I am teaching the survey again in the fall 2020 semester and plan to keep the “Dear Boccaccio” assignment regardless if the class is in-person or online. The nature of letter writing, even if it is an imaginary conversation with a historical actor, connected the students with each other and with me in ways that were more reflective than a classroom discussion. Although these students will go on in their academic lives and future careers, I hope they will remember learning about the Black Death while living through the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Beth Petitjean is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. Her research focuses on thermal baths and their relationship to the development of chemistry and the scientific community in Early Modern Tuscany.

1 Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. G. H. McWilliam, 2nd ed. (1995; repr., London: Penguin Books, 2003).

2 Sources from John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348–1350, A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017).

3 Boccaccio, The Decameron, 7.

4 Students quoted from documents in section 4 (Societal and Economic Impact) of Aberth, The Black Death, 57–78.

5 Students quoted from documents in section 6 (The Poison Conspiracy) of Aberth, The Black Death, 111–134.

6 Students quoted from documents in section 2 (Symptoms and Transmission) and section 3 (Medical Responses) of Aberth, The Black Death, 28–53.

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