The most deadly pandemic in history was the fourteenth-century outbreak of plague that contemporaries called the “great plague” or the “pestilence of mortality” and that later acquired the name Black Death. It killed one-third to one-half the population in some areas, and may have had a global death toll of 100–200 million. This topic is a staple of medieval, western civilization, and world history courses, and in a post-COVID-19 world that will certainly continue, particularly as our best initial tools to fight the novel coronavirus are exactly those that were available in the fourteenth century: isolation and “social distancing.” This essay provides a brief guide for teaching the Black Death that incorporates new evidence, using materials available without a paywall online. The best guide for this is Monica Green, a historian of medieval science and medicine. Much of my advice here comes from her essay, “On Learning How to Teach the Black Death,” and other of her works.1
The fourteenth century is often close to the end of semester-long courses, and the plague may connect with many themes already introduced into the course. The history of medicine is increasingly examined not as something apart from the rest of history, but as connected to broader social, cultural, and intellectual developments. This is certainly true for research on the plague, a thriving interdisciplinary field of study with new findings coming every year from various outbreaks around the world that occurred in different eras of the past or are happening today.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and has been around for at least 5000 years.2 Major outbreaks of plague include the sixth-century Plague of Justinian in the Byzantine Empire and surrounding areas, which may have killed around 50 million people, and what is usually called the “third plague pandemic” that began in 1855 in China, spread to India and then around the world, ultimately killing about 12 million people.3
The first thing students need is a basic introduction to what the plague and Yersina pestis are. As we have seen with the novel coronavirus, knowledge about how diseases operate is often sketchy or nonexistent, even among those who proclaim themselves to be geniuses. Though “plague” is often used metaphorically to refer to epidemics caused by various diseases, it is a specific disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a good basic fact sheet that points out different forms of plague infection (bubonic, pneumonic, septicemic), symptoms, fatality rates, and treatment, that could be posted as background on your course website.
The term “Black Death” for the fourteenth-century outbreak was first used in Danish sources (den sorte død) in the seventeenth century, and came into English and other European languages as a direct translation of the Danish in the eighteenth century. (There are various folk etymologies of the term that see its origin in Italian phrases, but these are wrong.) Today it is generally used only for the fourteenth-century outbreak, though sometimes also for the recurrences of plague in Europe into the seventeenth century. Associations between blackness and death have a long history in Europe, in contrast to associations between whiteness and death in East Asia.4 Referring to the pandemic simply as plague or as the second pandemic (the first being the Plague of Justinian) could avoid these associations, but “Black Death” will be known to students, and the term could also provide an entrée into discussions of color symbolism and racialized terminology, or link with these if they have already been discussed.
In the early 2000s, several historians speculated that the Black Death was not caused by Y. pestis, but a breakthrough study in 2011 completely sequenced the Y. pestis DNA genome from the pathogens remaining in the tooth pulp of human remains in a fourteenth-century London cemetery, so there is no longer any doubt.5 New genetic evidence indicates that sometime between 1142 and 1339, variants of Y. pestis on the Eurasian steppe (in what is now western China) diverged into four branches, one of which spread into Europe. Green’s essay includes a graphic of the phylogenetic tree that shows this multi-part divergence, with a good explanation for nonspecialists. This might seem overly technical, but students may now be more familiar with scientific diagrams than they were before the COVID-19 outbreak, and it’s a good example of how history now draws on research from many fields, including the sciences.
Plague moved when people moved. Around 1346 the strain that became the Black Death began to move, first within the Mongol Empire and then beyond it. The map in the Wikipedia entry “Black Death,” taken from one in Ole Benedictow’s survey, largely reflects the newer research, and is better than the one in many textbooks.6 New strains also developed in many different places, in a process disease historians term “focalization.” This process has continued, as the vast majority of plague strains have their origins after the fourteenth century. We do not know the exact mechanisms by which the plague spread, but several recent studies suggest that fleas and lice carrying the plague jumped from person to person as well as from rodents to humans. “Community transmission,” a phrase popularized in the last several months, thus played a role.
Along with materials that talk about the plague in medical and genetic terms, the course should include sources that focus on the human response. Written sources available as teaching materials include classics such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348–53) and less well-known works. Boccaccio’s description of the plague has acquired new resonance:
Against this pestilence no human wisdom or foresight was of any avail.… Men and women in great numbers abandoned their city, their houses, their farms, their relatives, and their possessions and sought other places, going at least as far away as the Florentine countryside—as if the wrath of God could not pursue them with this pestilence wherever they went but would only strike those it found within the walls of the city!… So many corpses would arrive in front of a church every day and at every hour that the amount of holy ground for burials was certainly insufficient for the ancient custom of giving each body its individual place; when all the graves were full, huge trenches were dug in all the cemeteries of the churches and into them the new arrivals were dumped by the hundreds.7
For a material source directly related to Boccaccio, the Newberry Library in Chicago has posted a ledger book from a Florentine wool merchant, which includes a list of ten members of his immediate family who died in June and July of 1348.8 The post links to a half-hour video about the ledger book from one of the Newberry’s specialists in manuscripts, including her discussion of the Black Death section. For further sources on the plague in Italy, World History Commons, the open access digital site hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and the New Media, has a teaching unit on children during the Black Death.9 The site has a number of sources, including wills made by men and women, health regulations from Italian cities, and several woodcuts of Death snatching children away. This site includes a background essay accessible to students and a lesson plan with detailed directions for how to use the sources.
The Jewish History Sourcebook at Fordham University has a group of sources related to pogroms against Jews that resulted from the Black Death: a Jewish man’s confession under torture to poisoning wells and a description of the burning of the Jewish community at Strasbourg in 1349, both taken from the chronicle of the medieval Strasbourg historian Jacob von Königshofen, and the inscription from the tomb of a young Jewish man in Toledo who died of the plague.10 The inscription achingly expresses the sorrow of the young man’s father, good evidence that the old idea that premodern parents were unfeeling toward their children—still repeated—is wrong. The selections from the chronicle highlight a common response to any pandemic, a search for scapegoats. If the course has included discussion of Christian/Jewish relations in medieval Europe, students will not be surprised that this focused on Jews. Asking them to find examples of scapegoating in the current pandemic may lead to interesting discussions of what has changed and what has not.
The Decameron Web at Brown University has a number of contemporary Italian accounts of the plague, and there are further documents from other parts of Europe posted elsewhere.11 I usually pick two brief sources for my students to compare, such as an excerpt from Boccaccio and one from Henry Knighton, an English monastic chronicler.12 They represent two different parts of Europe, plus Boccaccio is writing in an urban setting and Knighton from a rural monastery, which also shapes their perspectives.
The plague struck the Near East and North Africa at the same time that it spread through Europe, and comparisons between Christian and Muslim responses are also valuable teaching tools. The Stanford History Education Group has a short selection from the historian Ibn al-Wardi’s 1348 eyewitness account of the plague at Aleppo, “An Essay on the Report of the Pestilence,” along with a University of Paris Medical Faculty report of the same year.13 Both accounts discuss possible causes of the plague and various actions people took to combat it.
Arabic sources include the earliest known formulation of the idea of contagion, which comes from the treatise On the Plague by the Muslim physician and historian Ibn Al-Khatib (1313–74), the vizier at the court of Muhammad V in Granada. Many Muslim scholars interpreted certain hadith to mean that disease was simply divine punishment, but Ibn Al-Khatib saw it through empirical eyes. I have always liked this text because it pushes what many students view as a “modern” response to illness backwards in time, and helps break down the modern vs. premodern dichotomy. And now that how diseases spread has been so much in the news, I can’t help but hear Ibn Al-Khatib’s words in the hoarse voice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, responding to the coronavirus deniers, quack healers, and other thoughtless and foolish people he has had to confront every day:
If one asks, “how can you admit the assertion, there is infection, when the revealed word (ash-shar) denies this?” we answer: that infection exists, is confirmed by experience, research, insight, and observation, and through constantly recurring accounts. These are the elements of proof. For him who has treated or recognized this case, it cannot remain concealed that mostly the man who has had contact with a patient infected with this disease must die and that, on the other hand, the man who has had no contact remains healthy. So it is with the appearance of the illness in a house or quarter because of a garment or a vessel; even an earring can destroy him who put it in his ear, and all the inhabitants of the house. The illness can first appear in a town in a single house; then from there, it can break out among individual contacts, then among their neighbours, relatives, and especially their visitors, until the breach becomes even greater. The illness can spread in coastal towns that enjoyed good health until there lands in them a man with plague, come from across the sea, from another coast where the plague already exists, as reports tell. The date of the appearance of the illness in the town tallies with the date of debarcation of this man. Many remained healthy who kept themselves strictly cut off from the outside world, like the pious Ibn-Abi-Madyan in Salé. He belonged to those who believed in contagion. He had stored up provisions for a long period and bricked up his door behind him and his large family. The town succumbed, but during that period, he was not deprived of a single soul…
But it belongs to principles which one may not ignore that a proof taken from tradition (hadith), if the observation and inspection are contrary, must be interpreted allegorically. In this matter it is essential that it should be interpreted in accordance with the view of those who hold the theory of contagion. There are also numerous compassionate passages [about contagion] in revealed scripture, for example, the utterance of the Prophet: “an owner of sick animals should not drive these to the owner of healthy animals.”14
Those of us who are early modernists often teach the “scientific method” as a product of the seventeenth century, but here is Ibn al-Khatib advocating exactly that, which I help my students see in his assertion about the importance of “experience, research, insight, and observation.” He also ends with a comment about the Prophet’s recognition of contagion as a sign of Muhammad’s compassion, a quality that is generally lacking in other accounts of responses to the Black Death, so that students find it comforting.
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the senior editor of The Sixteenth Century Journal, and the author or editor of more than thirty books and numerous articles or book chapters that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.
3 The Visual Capitalist has an eye-catching visual of pandemics over the last two millennia, arranged by date and by death toll, with the COVID-19 totals updated on a regular basis. See Nicholas LePan, “Visualizing the History of Pandemics,” 14 Mar. 2020. The Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies has just begun a series of 5-minute videos designed for the classroom, “Learning from Pre-Modern Plagues,” of which the first focuses on Justinian’s plague in Marseilles: “The Perils of Reopening: The Plague in Marseille, 588 CE,” 2 June 2020.
4 Cord J. Whitaker discusses the association between blackness and death in Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). On blackness in the Renaissance, see Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).
5 K. Bos, V. Schuenemann, G. Golding et al., “A Draft Genome of Yersinia pestis from Victims of the Black Death,” Nature 478 (2011): 506–10.
6 Ole Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004). This is “complete” only for Europe, and does not include newer genetic research.
7 Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 7, 9, 12. The entire introduction to The Decameron is available in an older translation at Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University.
11 For France, see “Jean de Venette on the Progress of the Black Death,” The History Guide. For England, see “Plagues and Pestilence,” EuroDocs.
14 Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), 94–95. As far as I can tell, Ibn al-Khatib’s treatise is not available online.