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.
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?
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”?
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?
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?
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.
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.
In the video, I talk about unequal taxation, partly as a result of the Black Death, as one cause of anti-noble feeling among commoners. How else might demographic decline have destabilized social relations?
How different was urban and rural life for late medieval commoners? What kinds of tensions might have arisen between urban and rural rebels as a result?
In addition to Paris, other northern French towns, such as Senlis, Amiens, Orléans, and Rouen, had involvement in the revolt. What can you tell about their actions based on the map?
Translations of some sources for the Jacquerie in Samuel K. Cohn, jr., Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe: Italy, France, and Flanders, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester, 2004), pp. 143-200.
Firnhaber-Baker, Justine, “The Eponymous Jacquerie: Making Revolt Mean Some Things,” in The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt, ed. Justine Firnhaber-Baker with Dirk Schoenaers (Abingdon and New York, 2017), pp. 55-75.
Firnhaber-Baker, Justine, “Soldiers, Villagers, and Politics: Military Violence and the Jacquerie of 1358,” in Routiers et mercenaires pendant la guerre de Cent ans: Hommage à Jonathan Sumption, ed. Guilhem Pépin, Françoise Lainé, and Frédéric Boutoulle (Bordeaux, 2016), pp. 101-14.
Firnhaber-Baker, Justine, “The Social Constituency of the Jacquerie Revolt of 1358.” Speculum, vol. 95, no. 3 (2020).
Firnhaber-Baker, Justine, The Jacquerie Revolt of 1358: Violence, Politics, and Society in Medieval France, Oxford Studies in Medieval European History (Oxford, 2021).
What comparisons can be made with earlier Iberian texts featuring older women go-betweens? Consider Trotaconventos with Don Melon y Doña Endrina in Juan Ruiz’s 14c Libro de bueno amor, and Celestina with Calisto and Melibea in Fernando de Rojas’s 16c La Celestina/La Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea. Consider strategies used by the go-betweens, the linguistic or material tools used, the punishments that occurred, and possible motivations.
Why is the necromancer portrayed as Moorish in the historical context of the Morisco expulsion (1609-1614)? What does distancing of magical practice do?
Compare this novela and earlier or contemporaneous Iberian Arabic grimoires. Consider love spells in texts like the Picatrix (13c translation of 10c Arabic Ghāyat al-Hakīm) or the 16/17c Aljamiado Libro de dichos maravillosos. What items were necessary for the spells—both in the novela and the grimoires—and what were the intended results? Are such comparisons fruitful?
Consider the novelas in the context of contemporary movements like #metoo. Are these stories similar? How is the complexity of gender relations nuanced as both men and women contributed to doña Inés’s unjust suffering?
*Warning:* This video contains some graphic and disturbing descriptions which may not be suitable for all viewers.
Primary Source Document
A translation of the remission letter granted to Antonie van Claerhout in 1455 can be found in Peter Arnade and Walter Prevenier, Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble. Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015, p. 116–18.
1. Read a pardon letter or a petition for pardon. What do you notice about the rhetorical techniques and legal arguments used by the petitioner to support their demand for pardon?
2. How is violence described in pardon letters? What does that tell us about the medieval attitudes to violence?
3. Why could it be in the interest of a king or a prince to grant pardons? Does the late medieval use of pardoning threaten to deteriorate public order?
4. To what extent was royal pardon connected to the Christian notions of justice and mercy? Check the related vocabulary used in a pardon letter to elaborate on this question.
The Himanis Project website, transcribing and indexing some of the French Trésor des chartes that recorded remission letters.
The Calendars of the patent rolls preserved in the Public record office, available on the HathiTrust website, describe royal pardons granted by the English Crown.