On Learning How to Teach the Black Death

On Learning How to Teach the Black Death

By Monica H. Green

HPS&ST Note, 2018

Boccaccio’s ‘The plague of Florence in 1348’

Abstract: The essay has three objectives. First, it summarizes what I call the “three gifts of the Magi” that geneticists/microbiologists have recently given to historians of disease in helping us better understand the Black Death, usually dated to 1346-1353 and rightly called the largest pandemic in human history. Those are: (1) the identification of the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, as the causative organism of the Black Death; (2) the demonstration (based on the complete sequencing of the organism) that the strain of the disease was not significantly different from strains still documented in the world today, meaning that it was unlikely the virulence of the organism, by itself, that was the cause of the staggering mortality levels across so many landscapes (and meaning that modern lab and field studies of plague’s epidemiology provide reasonable analogs for historical study); and (3) the revelation of Y. pestis’s entire global history as a single evolutionary narrative, meaning that any sample of plague from any time or any place can be fitted into a coherent global story.

The second objective of the essay is to lay out the four new truths about the history of plague that should be the foundation for classroom teaching about the pandemic. Those basic elements should now include: (1) teaching plague as a global narrative (here I summarize how genetics informs that evolutionary history and explain why the Black Death, more so than other plague pandemics, is at the heart of that story); (2) giving a better sense of how massive the mortality may have been, given that the pandemic likely struck larger areas of both Eurasia and Africa than we have previously realized; (3) learning to learn from silences, that is, recognizing that in some cases absence of evidence (bureaucratic records, habitation, even lead pollution) can be telling; and (4) acknowledging that the Black Death never ended, that it was not a one-off great mortality but the “seeding” event that distributed plague across major landscapes, where it would continue to flourish for centuries thereafter (and in some instances, up to the present day).

The third objective is to give some basic guidelines about building up a pedagogical framework to teach these narratives. Since in many contexts, instructors have limited time to tell such a massive story, a “module” structure is proposed, flagging which areas in plague studies are most likely to see major new developments in the coming years, and giving suggestions about how to identify key themes around which to structure teaching objectives.

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