Course Materials Meet a Medieval Source Videos

Early Transmission of the Black Death, by Hannah Barker

Hannah Barker, Arizona State University

Primary Sources

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.

Further Reading: Primary Sources

Bartsocas, Christos. “Two Fourteenth Century Greek Descriptions of the ‘Black Death’.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 21 (1966): 394-400.

Heyligen, Louis. “The Plague in Avignon.” In The Black Death, ed. Rosemary Horrox, 41-45. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Dols, Michael. “Ibn al-Wardi’s Risalah al-naba’ ‘an al-waba. A Translation of a Major Source for the History of the Black Death in the Middle East.” In Near Eastern Numismatics.  Iconography, Epigraphy, and History:  Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, ed. Dickran Kouymijian and George Miles, 443-455. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1974.  

Muisis, Gilles. “The Plague Seen from Tournai.” In The Black Death, ed. Rosemary Horrox, 45-47. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994. 

The Report of the Paris Medical Faculty, October 1348.” In The Black Death, ed. Rosemary Horrox, 158-163. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Villani, Giovanni. “Chronicle.” In John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents, 19-20. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Discussion Questions

  1. In this petition, the inhabitants of Caffa ask for money, soldiers, and a bishop. Why do they need each of those things? Why do they turn to the doge of Genoa for help?
  2. At the time when this petition was written, had anyone in Caffa shown symptoms of plague? If so, which symptoms? If not, why did the petition mention “an endless plague of death”?
  3. Compare what this source says about the early transmission of the Black Death with the account of Gabriele de’ Mussis. Based on what you know about modern medical research on plague transmission, which version makes more sense? Based on what you know about medieval ideas about disease and contagion, which version would make more sense to medieval readers?
  4. Compare what this source says about the early transmission of the Black Death with another source from the list of Further Reading – Primary Sources. How are the two accounts similar? How are they different? What do you think the differences imply?

Further Reading – Seconday Sources

Barker, Hannah. “Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain Embargoes and the Early Transmission of the Black Death in the Black Sea, 1346-1347.” Speculum (forthcoming 2021). Preprint on BodoArXiv, May 2, 2020. 

Dols, Michael. The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. 

Green, Monica, ed. Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death. In The Medieval Globe 1, no. 1 (2014). Accessed May 7, 2020. 

Schamiloglu, Uli. “The Impact of the Black Death on the Golden Horde: Politics, Economy, Society, Civilization.” Golden Horde Review 5, no. 2 (2017): 325-343.

Spyrou, Maria, Marcel Keller, Rezeda Tukhbatova, et al. “Phylogeography of the Second Plague Pandemic Revealed through Analysis of Historical Yersinia pestis Genomes.” Nature Communications 10/4470 (2019), 1-13.

Varlik, Nükhet. Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

To Cite This Page

Barker, Hannah, “Early Transmission of the Black Death,” Middle Ages for Educators, May 7, 2020. Accessed[date].,-by-hannah-barker/

Course Materials

A Medieval Plague Lesson Plan, by Merle Eisenberg

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 in our resources page.

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.

Primary Sources

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.

To Cite this Page

Eisenberg, Merle, “A Medieval Plague Lesson Plan,” Middle Ages for Educators, May 4, 2020. Accessed[date].

Course Materials Meet a Medieval Source Videos

The “Lais” of Marie de France, by Kathy Krause

Kathy Krause, University of Missouri Kansas City

Editions and Translations


Scholarly edition and translation into modern French (most recent of several available):

Nathalie Koble, Mireille Séguy ed & trans., Lais bretons (XIIe-XIIIe siècles): Marie de France et ses contemporains (Paris: Éditions Honoré Champion, 2018).

There are two excellent English translations (not freely available on-line, but with many inexpensive used copies available via on-line booksellers):

  • Gly Burgess and Keith Busby, trans. The Lais of Marie De France With Two Further Lais in the Original Old French (New York: Penguin Books, 2011) (ebook and paperback).
  • Robert W. Hanning and Joan M. Ferrante, trans., The Lais of Marie de France, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995) (paperback).

Digitized manuscripts of the Lais:

The only manuscript with the prologue and all twelve of the (known) lais:

There are four other manuscripts with one or more lais (two with Marie’s collection of fables, known as the Ysopet (i.e. Aesop)):

Discussion Questions for specific lais:


1. One way to understand the construction of the lai is to examine the situation of the protagonist, Lanval.  What is Lanval’s problem at the beginning of the lai ?  in the middle ?  at the end?

2. What does the lai tell us about Lanval (e.g. descriptions by the narrator or by other characters)? How does the text show Lanval behaving?  Does he behave like his description?  (Be able to point to elements in the text to defend your answer.)

3. Analyze the scene where Lanval meets the fée (fairy).  Where does it occur?  How is the fée described?  How does Lanval react?  Etc.

4. How is the queen described/presented?  (What is she doing at the beginning of the episode?  How does she react when she sees him?  How does she interact with Lanval?)

5. What are the “stages” of Lanval’s trial?  What exactly is he accused of doing?  Do you know any (famous) similar stories?


A. Background:

1. How were marriages decided in the Middle Ages (for the wealthy)? Who chose the husband/wife? with what criteria ? What kinds of results might you expect (for either spouse) under such a system?

B. You and the characters

1. How do you react to each of the characters? Is your reaction positive, negative, ambivalent? 

2. For each character, make a list of the qualities and actions that explain your reaction.

3. For each character, explain how the narrator characterizes them (what expressions are used in the text). For whom does the narrator have sympathy? In other words, who does the narrator portray positively? negatively?  Try to distinguish between a reaction based on your moral system, your ideas about what is right or correct, and how the story actually presents each of the characters.

C. Medieval literature often uses symbols to suggest feelings and ideas (modern literature does too, of course). What symbolic value does each of the objects take on in the lai?

  • 1. the wall
  • 2. springtime
  • 3. the nightingale’s song
  • 4. the bloodstain
  • 5. the “tiny vessal” (Shoaf) or “coffret” (Mason)

Power Point of this talk

Downloadable PDF

To Cite this Page

Krause, Kathy. “The Lais of Marie de France,” Middle Ages for Educators, April 10, 2020. Accessed[date].

Course Materials Meet a Medieval Source Videos

Teaching Portugal’s Age of Expansion and Exploration, by Ross Karlan

Ross Karlan, Georgetown University and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Primary Source Links:

Discussion Questions:

1. How do Zurara and Caminha represent the “other”  in the colonial space? Are there similarities or differences between how they describe Brazil/Brazilians and Guinea/Guineans?

2. In Luis de Camões’ Lusiads, what is the role of genre? How does genre shape Camões’ authorship or audience reception? Are there moments where Camões addresses this directly?

Further reading:

Blackmore, Josiah. Moorings: Portuguese Expansion and the Writing of Africa. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Russell, Peter Edward. Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life. Yale Univ. Press, 2001.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Williams, Jerry M. “Pero Vaz de Caminha: The Voice of the Luso-Brazilian Chronicle.” Luso-Brazilian Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 1991, pp. 59–72.

To Cite this Page

Karlan, Ross. “Teaching Portugal’s Age of Expansion and Exploration,” Middle Ages for Educators, April 9, 2020. Accessed[date].

Asynchronous Digital Activities Course Materials

Tips for Teaching Medieval Studies Online, by Ken Mondschein

To cite this page:

Mondschein, Kenneth. “Tips for Teaching Medieval Studies Online” Middle Ages for Educators, March 24, 2020. Accessed [date].‎(opens in a new tab)