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The Path of the Black Death Page 1 of 6


Europe in the first half of the 14th Century seemed to be preparing itself for significant changes. Cities
grew in importance, though most of the population was still rural. Population increases had led to
overuse of the available land. Poor harvests—also due to cooler, wetter weather—led to famines. The
serf system was being undermined. Centralized political authority was becoming more powerful. Then
the Black Death cut a path—both literal and figurative—through the middle of the 14th Century. The
disease was caused by the bubonic plague, which was spread by rats, whose fleas carried the plague
bacilli from the East along trade routes until it penetrated almost all of Europe, killing at least one out
of every three people.

Such a radical alteration in population in any place, at any time, would likely set off dramatic changes in
society. What happened in a Europe already beginning to transform itself? In this lesson, students
analyze maps, firsthand accounts, and archival documents to trace the path and aftermath of the Black

Guiding Question

• What were the effects of the Black Death in Europe?

Learning Objectives

Students completing this lesson will be able to:

• Show on a map how the Black Death moved through Europe.

• Summarize the direct effects of the Black Death in Europe.
• Cite evidence from firsthand accounts in developing an argument that connections can, or
cannot, be drawn between the plague and changes adopted by the ruling class.

Background for the Teacher

• Satan Triumphant: The Black Death, from lecture note on the History Guide, maintained by
Steven Kreis, accessible through a link from the EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library,
offers a brief summary of the Black Death in Europe.
• For discussion of the likely social and economic effects of the Black Death read Social and
Economic Effects of the Plague accessible through a link from the EDSITEment resource Geoffrey
Chaucer. Decameron Web.

Preparing to Teach This Lesson

• Review the online lesson, download and/or print any materials you want to use with your class.
Review the online interactive available for use with the lesson.
• Prepare a handout or overhead of A Firsthand Description of the Plague. Be sure to remove the
first sentence, which ends with the word "Messina," and the sentence beginning "When the
inhabitants of Messina discovered," as they reveal that Genoese traders first brought the
disease. This witness' account (written ten years after the fact by Michael Platiensis (1357)can
be accessed through a link from EDSITEment web site Geoffrey Chaucer.
• Students needing general background on life in the Middle Ages can view the exhibit The Middle
Ages offered by the EDSITEment resource
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• Create three student groups to work on Activity #3, The Dark Path of the Black Death below. If
desired, and you have sufficient time for more presentations, you can make six groups with two
groups assigned to each challenge.
• In this lesson, students use firsthand accounts in learning about the Black Death. Students need
to be aware of the effect of point of view and the potential for bias in such sources. EDSITEment
resources offer some useful materials designed to help students and teachers work with primary

The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice
on the use of primary documents:

• Using Primary Sources in the Classroom on American Memory

• The Historian's Sources on The Library of Congress, a link from American Memory
• Document Analysis Worksheets on Digital Classroom
• Making Sense of Evidence on History Matters

Analysis of Primary Sources on The Library of Congress, a link from American Memory, may be helpful
to students preparing to interpret primary documents. This succinct but valuable lesson offers three
basic steps for analyzing primary sources:

• Time and place rule

• Bias rule
• Questions for analyzing primary sources

Suggested Activities

1: Mapping the Black Death

2: The Immediate Effects of the Black Death

3: Predictions About the Effect of the Plague

1. Mapping the Black Death

In October of 1347, in Messina, Italy, on the island of Sicily, the plague first arrived in Europe. To
introduce this devastating disease, share with your students A Firsthand Description of the Plague
(without the sentences about the Genoese ships) accessed through a link from the EDSITEment web
site Geoffrey Chaucer. (Note: This account—composed by a witness, Michael Platiensis, to the events in
October, 1347—was written in 1357.) Discuss the:

• rate at which the plague spread;

• rapidity of the progress of the disease in individuals;
• high mortality rate in the wake of the disease.

(NOTE: Details of the symptoms of the disease and the practice of medicine at the time are not the
focus of the lesson and should be regarded as an extension for individual research. However, explain to
students that most medical authorities agree that the disease called the Black Death was bubonic
plague spread by fleas on rats and originated in Asia. Although the exact cause was unknown until
much later, the disease was virtually untreatable without modern antibiotics. Students with such
interests can conduct their own exploration into what was believed regarding the causes and treatment
of the disease at the time, and the probable effect of some of the measures taken to prevent the
spread of disease and on hygiene in general. See Extending the Lesson below.)
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After completing the class discussion on the movement of the plague, have students work
independently using the EDSITEment interactive The Path of the Black Death or the downloadable PDF,
The Path of the Black Death in Europe.

NOTE: The dates on the interactive map are based on a map found on Decameron Web, as well as the
map Spread of the Black Death, both accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Geoffrey
Chaucer and some firsthand accounts of the plague.

When students have finished working independently on the map exercise, have volunteers share with
the class their answers to the questions in the interactive or PDF document.

Now, share with your students the first sentence of A Firsthand Description of the Plague, which states
that the plague arrived at Messina on Genoese ships.

2. The Immediate Effects of the Black Death

The immediate effects of the plague were devastating. In this activity students will read primary
sources in order to gain a better understanding of the spread and effects of the disease. Begin by
asking students what answers, if any, primary sources can provide for the following:

1. How virulent was the plague? Did most people who got the plague survive or succumb?
2. Was recovery from the plague even possible?
3. Which particular groups (priests, doctors, merchants, urban versus rural population, for
example) or classes of people (working class, craftsmen, ruling class, for example), if any, were
affected by the plague or was it an indiscriminate killer?

Discuss the likely answers to the questions above after students have read one or more additional
firsthand accounts of the plague on its path through Europe, such as:

• Boccaccio: The Onset of the Black Death (Florence) from EDSITEment resource Internet
Medieval Sourcebook

(Boccaccio may not have witnessed the plague firsthand in Florence, but his father was a health

Next, discuss the extent of the plague after reading with the class the first two paragraphs of an
account contemporary to the plague, Jean de Venette on the Progress of the Black Death (accessible
through a link from EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library) , starting with the words, "Some said
that this pestilence…" (third paragraph) It offers a witness' perspective on the progress of the disease
in Europe.

Share the map Spread of the Black Death accessible through EDSITEment resource Geoffrey Chaucer.,
which shows a more comprehensive view of the extent of the plague.

Finally, have students attempt to gain an idea of what kind of impact the disease had on the size of
Europe's population. In Florence, Italy, after the plague subsided, an attempt was made to calculate the
effect on the population. Share the very brief description How Many Of The Dead Died Because Of The
Mortality Of The Year Of Christ 1348, from EDSITEment resource Internet Medieval Sourcebook (NOTE:
Scroll down the page to Rubric 635). The count may be exaggerated; modern demographic studies
estimate the population of Florence in 1300 at 120,000 and by 1427 the number of people counted had
fallen to around 37,000. However accurate the estimates are, it is undeniable that Florence suffered a
huge, swift population loss. Then share with the class and discuss the first half of the secondary
account, The Black Death: Population Loss (stopping at the words "nor room to bury them." at the end
of paragraph seven), accessible through EDSITEment resource Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Discuss
the effect of the plague on the population of Europe.
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NOTE: Precise population figures were not always kept in medieval towns and cities. Undoubtedly, the
devastation of the plague and the need to dispose of bodies quickly adds to the difficulty we have now
in determining precise mortality rates.

3. Predictions About the Effect of the Plague

Now the class is ready to make some predictions as to the likely secondary effects of the plague. Write
their predictions on a chart or on the chalkboard for future reference. Earlier in the 14th Century,
Europe had experienced widespread famine due to population growth and overuse of the land. Lead a
discussion with the class. What do the students predict about the likely effects of the plague experience
and a large decrease in population in mid-14th Century Europe, on:

1. rules and regulations governing such matters as sanitation and the conduct of business?
2. hospitals and medical knowledge?
3. attitude of the working class toward the ruling class? The ruling class toward the working class?
4. population in cities versus population in rural areas? (Though proximity may have led to greater
mortality in cities, the period after the plague saw a movement of people from the country to
the city.)
5. labor supply? What happens to wages when there are less people to do work people want done?
6. land usage and food supply? Before the plague there had been insufficient land to produce
enough food for the population, leading to famine. What will happen to the supply of food now,
with more than enough land to farm?
7. food prices? What happens to the price of food when there is less demand?
8. price of goods? What happens to the price of goods when there is less demand, but also fewer
people to create the goods?

Next, have students read the first six paragraphs of the analysis In the Wake of the Black Death
(stopping after the sentence, "Everywhere their rents were in steady decline after the plague." at the
end of paragraph six.) accessible through a link from Internet Public Library. If desired, read additional
secondary accounts on the effects of the plague such as Economic Disruption and the remaining
paragraphs of Population Loss both accessible through a link from EDSITEment reviewed website
Geoffrey Chaucer.

Divide the class into three groups. Present the following assignments [found in the Student Launch
Pads—Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3—or PDF files] to the groups. Each is designed to present insight
into one aspect of the effect of the plague on life in Europe in the late 14th Century. In general,
students should approach their reading of each primary source using the following general questions as
a guide li>What does the document state?

• What elements within the document have likely connections to the plague and its effects? In
what way?
• In what ways, if any, does the document differ from other first- or secondhand accounts the
class has read?
• What possible sources of bias or unintentional inaccuracy should be taken into account?
• The directions and questions for each group are found in the downloadable PDF, "The Effects of
the Black Death."

When the groups have completed the assignments from the PDF files, have each group stage its
interview(s). Ask audience members to summarize the likely connections between the plague and the
documents/events highlighted by each presentation. As a class, look back at and evaluate the
predictions the class made. Refashion each by consensus into a statement about what actually

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The Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th Century devastated the population, which was a terrible
tragedy. Survivors found themselves in a changed world. Compare and contrast the likely ways in which
the lives and attitudes of a peasant and a member of the ruling class would have been different after
the plague than if the plague had never happened. The student should pick two or three aspects of life
that might have changed. In the body of the essay, discuss each aspect in a paragraph or more,
highlighting the differences for the peasant and for the member of the ruling class. To support the
argument, the student should use information from the primary sources the class has encountered.

Extending the Lesson

Students who want to know more about medieval healing practices can begin to explore their interest
through the EDSITEment resource This website offers an exhibit on the Middle Ages,
including a self-guiding, interactive activity on Health featuring Try Your Hand at Medieval Medicine. The
home page of Health also offers links to web sites with further information. If desired, students can
report back to the class what they have learned.

EDSITEment Websites

• Geoffrey Chaucer
o Medieval Trade Routes: Map
[ ]
o Spread of the Black Death: Map
o Black Death (The Economic Effect of the Black Death)
o Decameron Web
o Social and Economic Effects of the Plague
• Internet Medieval Sourcebook
o Boccaccio: The Onset of the Black Death
o How Many Of The Dead Died Because Of The Mortality Of The Year Of Christ 1348
o The Jacquerie (1358)
o Ordinance of Labourers
o Peasants' Revolt 1381
o Pistoia, "Ordinances For Sanitation In A Time Of Mortality"
o The Statute of Labourers
o Another Description of the Plague (Siena, May 1348)
o The Black Death
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o Economic Disruption
o A Firsthand Description of the Plague (Messina, October 1347)
o Population Loss
• Internet Public Library []
o The History Guide
o Satan Triumphant: The Black Death
o Jean de Venette on the Progress of the Black Death
o In the Wake of the Black Death
o Wat Tyler (The Peasant's Revolt)
• []
o The Middle Ages
o Health
o Try Your Hand at Medieval Medicine

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