What was the Black Death?

The Black Death was a pandemic disease that spread throughout Europe, Asia and northern Africa in the mid-fourteenth century. This bubonic plague had a devastating effect on the population of Eurasia, and fundamentally changed the economic and social conditions of many countries.  This section offers a wide range of resources about the Black Death, including videos, articles and books about how the disease, including its causes, spread and effects on medieval society.

News about the Black Death

Researchers reconstruct genome of the Black Death – An international team  has sequenced the entire genome of the Black Death, one of the most devastating epidemics in human history.


Single Genetic change created the medieval plague, researchers find – Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death, was once only able to cause a mild gastrointestinal infection.

How Climate Change in Asia brought the Black Death to Europe – A group of Norwegian and Swiss researchers have uncovered links between climatic changes in central Asia and repeated outbreaks of the Bubonic plague in Europe, starting with the Black Death in the 14th century.


Black Death came from China, study finds – An international team of scientists have concluded that the plague known as the Black Death originated in China over 2600 years ago.

 Anthropologist compares medieval lives, pre- and post-Black Death – “The survivors were either tremendously lucky or there was something about them that made them better able to resist the Black Death or mount a really strong immune response to disease.”
The Medievalist and the Microbiologist: How Plague and Leprosy Have Opened Up New Perspectives on the History of Health – Monica Green, known as “the foremost authority on medicine in the Middle Ages,” examines how her field has changed in recent years.

Videos on the Black Death

Decoding the Black Death – Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University being interviewed on The Agenda

The Black Death: A Personal History – lecture by John Hatcher, Cambridge University history professor , on the challenges of writing and researching his book The Black Death: A Personal History.

The Unknown Vectors of the Black Death – Monica Green speaking at Rutgers University

How the Black Death Affected Painters and Art History – Images of death, tortured souls, and the macabre art produced during the Middle Ages that was highly influenced by the horrors of Black Death.


Mystery of the Black Death – clips from the BBC programme Timewatch

The Black Death in Winchester

Podcasts about the Black Death

The Black Death – a plague on all our houses – from the BBC radio series In Our Time, a discussion of the plague by historians Miri Rubin of the University of London; Samuel Cohn of the University of Glasgow; Paul Binski of the University of Cambridge (45 minutes)

Articles on the Black Death

Plague Remedies from Renaissance Italy – ‘Rue tops, one clove of garlic, a walnut, a grain of salt, and eat on an empty stomach everyday for up to a month, and you must be cheerful, and this recipe, it’s good against vermin and it’s perfect.

The Lived Experience of the Black Death – Various historians have chimed in as to what, exactly, may have been the root cause of the pestilence – with theories ranging from bubonic plague to anthrax or influenza.


Black Death: The Causes and Effects of a Pandemic – It requires an enormous burden of proof for any microscopic organism to be held responsible for killing roughly 30-40 percent of the population of Europe, or an estimated 17 to 28 million people from 1347-1352.

The Dance of the Black Death – The danse macabre and the overarching theme of mortality became an important cultural concept during the later Middle Ages, pervading all aspects of late medieval life.

Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa – On the basis of a 14th-century account by the Genoese Gabriele de’ Mussi, the Black Death is widely believed to have reached Europe from the Crimea as the result of a biological warfare attack.

The effect of sex on risk of mortality during the Black Death in London, A.D. 1349-1350 – The purpose of this study is to determine whether the Black Death was similarly selective with respect to biological sex-that is, did either sex face an elevated risk during the epidemic or were men and women at equal risk of dying?


Plague And Changes In Medieval European Society And Economy In The 14th And 15th Centuries – Diseases have always been inherent in humankind although not always have they developed into epidemics widespread enough to affect the history of human societies.

The Temporal Dynamics of the Fourteenth-Century Black Death: New Evidence from English Ecclesiastical Records – A sample of 235 deaths from the bishop’s register of Coventry and Lichfield, the only English register to list both date of death and date of institution, shows that the Black Death swept through local areas much more rapidly than has previously been thought.

The Economic Consequences of the Black Death – Great epidemics mark the agricultural world of the past; from Neolithic times onwards.

The Making of a Pandemic: Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century

Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward an Ecological History

Selectivity of Black Death mortality with respect to preexisting health

The Black Death: End of a Paradigm

The Black Death and its Effect on Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Art

Jewish Treatises on the Black Death (1350-1500): A Preliminary Study

Disaster and Recovery: The Black Death in Western Europe

Molecular identification by ‘‘suicide PCR’’ of Yersinia pestis as the agent of Medieval Black Death

The Black Death: Catastrophe or New Start?

Microbes and Markets: Was the Black Death an Economic Revolution?

Before and after the Black Death: money, prices, and wages in fourteenth-century England

The Great Transformation? David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

The Black Death and Property Rights

The Black Death in Bristol

Mortality, gender, and the plague of 1361–2 on the estate of the bishop of Winchester

New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death

The Black Death and the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ across Europe, 1300–1600

How the West ’Invented’ Fertility Restriction

The eleven plagues of Edinburgh

The epidemic of Justinian (AD 542): a prelude to the Middle Ages

Other Recent Articles on the Black Death

Christopher Catling, “The chances of surviving the Black Death explained,” Current Archaeology, Vol. 217 (2008)

Samuel K. Cohn Jr., “The Black Death tragedy, and transformation,” The Renaissance World. ed. John Jeffries Martin (New York, 2007)

Samuel K. Cohn Jr., “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” Past and Present, Vol.196:1 (2007)

John M. Theilmann and Frances Cate, “A plague of plagues: the problem of plague diagnosis in medieval England,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.37:3 (2007)

Dagmar Gottschall, “Conrad of Megenberg and the causes of the plague: a Latin treatise on the Black Death composed ca. 1350 for the papal court in Avignon,” La Vie culturelle, intellectuelle et scientifique à la cour des papes d’Avignon. ed. Jacqueline Hamesse (Turnhout, 2006)

Samuel K. Cohn Jr., “Triumph over plague: culture and memory after the black death,” Care for the Here and the Hereafter: Memoria, Art and Ritual in the Middle Ages. ed. Truus van Bueren and Andrea van Leerdam (Brepols, 2005)

Rebecca L. Gowland and Andrew T. Chamberlain, “Detecting plague: palaeodemographic characterisation of a catastrophic death assemblage,” Antiquity: A Quarterly Review of Archaeology, Vol. 79:303 (2005)

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. “The Black Death the end of a paradigm,” Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern and Modern Times, ed. Joseph Canning (Aldershot, 2004)

Elizabeth Casteen, “John of Rupescissa’s letter Reverendissime pater (1350) in the aftermath of the Black Death,” Franciscana: Bollettino della Società internazionale di studi francescani, Vol. 6 (2004)

More Resources on the Black Death

The Middle Ages: The Black Death – online guide by Professor Skip Knox of Boise State University

BBC: Black Death – from their British History in Depth website

The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE – from the Jewish History Sourcebook

Lesson Plans for Grade School Students:

The Black Death a Bubonic Plague – Grade 6 project video uploaded to Youtube

Movie: Black Death – released in 2010 and starring Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne

Buy a cute little Black Death!