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Creating a Course on the Black Death

Charles T. Wood

Daniel Webster Professor of History and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, Dartmouth College

Since an epidemiologist, a medical anthropologist, and I long taught a course on plagues at Dartmouth College, several people suggested that I should here make the course syllabus available for those wanting to work up their own courses on the Black Death. Unfortunately, though, since the course covered a range of infectious diseases from bubonic plague to AIDS, its specific medieval content was relatively slender.

As it happens, though, the late David Herlihy long taught an excellent Black Death course as part of Harvard's so-called Core Curriculum, and a syllabus from the early 1980s follows. Because the publisher withdrew his required text from circulation, I have removed all mention of it in the syllabus. No real content is lost thereby, and the course's imaginative range of coverage remains unaffected. Inevitably, some of Herlihy's recommended reading is now a bit dated and his lecture titles do not always make their planned content clear, but these problems are easily addressed through use of the following two books:

  1. David Herlihy, ed. Samuel K. Kohn, Jr., The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. This short book is an edited version of three lectures Herlihy gave at the University of Maine in 1985. In a very real way they encapsulate the themes he stressed in his course, and Kohn has provided up-to-date references in the notes to his introduction.
  2. Rosemary Horrox, ed. and tr., The Black Death. Manchester Medieval Sources series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. Distributed in the US by St. Martin's Press. This is by far the most extensive collection of relevant sources in translation. A full range of the evidence is presented, so many different approaches become possible, whether medical, social, economic, demographic, or what-have-you. In addition, the "Suggestions for further reading" are excellent and contain leads on where further bibliography can be easily found.

The Herlihy Harvard syllabus follows:

The Black Death: Ecological Crisis in Late Medieval Europe

Course requirements: One hourly, one final, one paper.

Students should select a paper theme in consultation with the instructor or section leader. The theme should deal with the relationship of plague to a particular individual, group of individuals (manor, village, city), institution (a university, religious order, guild), or attitude (views on death and dying, melancholy, antisemitism). The paper need not deal exclusively with the plague of 1348, but may focus upon later epidemics in Europe, up to c. 1715, the date of the last great plague outbreak (at Marseilles) in western Europe. A large, machine-readable data set exists, showing age distributions of the Florentine population, city and countryside, in 1427, for those who might want to try their hand at historical demography. [The data set in question is now available and analyzed in David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985)--CTW]

Sample titles would be:

  • The Black Death in the Thought and Works of Petrarch
  • Patterns of Population Decline and Recovery, Normandy and Tuscany
  • The Black Death on the Estates of the Bishop of Winchester
  • The Black Death at Battle Abbey
  • The Black Death and the Jewish Community at Strasbourg
  • The Black Death and a Medieval University (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Bologna)
  • The Black Death in Piers Plowman
  • Representations of the Danse Macabre in German (or French or English) Art of the Late Middle Ages
  • The Problem of Rat Migrations in the European Past
  • The Physician and His Art in Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Diet in Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Plague and the Construction of York Cathedral

Students should also read Albert Camus, The Plague. One of the questions in the Final will deal with this novel.

Required Readings:

  • Sources (collection of Xeroxed materials, chiefly contemporary documents, illustrating the plague and its effects, available at Core Office).[More than replaced by the much fuller sources found in the Horrox book cited at the end of my comments above--CTW.]

Recommended Readings:

  • The Black Death. The Impact of the Fourteenth Century Plague, ed. Daniel Williman. Binghampton, New York, 1982.
  • Robert Brenner, "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe," Past and Present, 70(1976), 30-75.
  • Anna Campbell, The Black Death and Men of Learning. Columbia University Press, 1931.
  • Albert Camus, The Plague, tr. Stuard Gilbert. 1948.
  • George Deaux, The Black Death, 1347. Hamish Hamilton, 1969.
  • Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton, 1977.
  • Francis Aidan Gasquet, The Black Death of 1348 and 1349. George Bell and Sons, 1980.
  • L. Genicot, "Crisis: From the Middle Ages to Modern Times," Cambridge Economic History, I (2nd ed.: Cambridge, 1966), chpt. 8.
  • Lawrence S. Greene (ed.), Malnutrition, Behavior and Social Organization. Academic Press, 1977.
  • Karl F. Helleiner, "The Population of Europe from the Black Death to the Eve of the Vital Revolution," Cambridge Economic History, IV, chpt. 1.
  • David Herlihy, Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town. Yale, 1967.
  • David Herlihy, The Social History of Italy and Western Europe, 700-1500. Collected Studies. Variorum, 1978.
  • J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages. New York, 1954.
  • Ronald Demos Lee (ed.), Population Patterns in the Past. Academic Press, 1977.
  • William H. McNeil, Plagues and Peoples. Doubleday, 1976.
  • Millard Meiss, Paintings in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. New York, 1964.
  • Johannes Nohl, The Black Death. A Chronicle of the Plague, tr. C. H. Clarke. Allen, 1926.
  • Norman J. G. Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe, 450-B.C. - A.D. 1330. Cambridge, 1973.
  • J. C. Russell, Late Ancient and Medieval Populations. American Philosophical Society, 1958.
  • J.F.D. Shrewsbury, A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles. Cambridge, 1970.
  • Wesley W. Spink, Infectious Diseases. Prevention and Treatment in the Nineteenth Century. University of Minnesota Press, 1978.
  • Philip Ziegler, The Black Death. Collins, 1969.
  • Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice and History. Little Brown, 1935.


  • September 20: Introduction: Human History, Human Ecology
    • Readings:
      • McNeil, Introductory
  • September 22: Historic Diseases and Traditional Medicine
    • Readings:
      • Zinsser, chpts. 1, 4 and 5
      • Spink, Section III, passages on smallpox, leprosy, cholera, pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, syphilis, typhus, malaria and ergotism
  • September 27: Pasturella Pestis
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 1 and 2
      • Ziegler, chpt. 4
      • Deaux, chpts. 1-2
      • Dols, chpts. 2-3
  • September 29: Europe, c. 1300
    • Readings:
      • Ziegler, chpt. 2
      • Pounds, chpts. 6
  • October 4: The Plague in the South of Europe
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 3
      • McNeil, chpt. 4
      • Gasquet, chpts 1, 2, 3
  • October 6: The Plague in the North of Europe
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 4
      • Gasquet, chpts 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or
      • Deaux, chpts 5 and 6 or
      • Ziegler, chpts 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
  • October 11: Recurrences:
    • Readings:
      • Russell, chpts. 11 and 12
      • Helleiner. in the Cambridge Economic History, IV, chpt 1
  • October 13: Causes of the Plague: Contemporary Opinions
    • Readings:
      • Campbell, chpt. 2
  • October 18: Overpopulation and Malnutrition
    • Readings:
      • Herlihy, Pistoia, chpts. 3 and 5
      • B. Abbott Segraves, Margaret Mead and Lawrence Greene, in Greene (ed.) Malnutrition.
  • October 20: Social-Structural Factors
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 6
      • Brenner in Past and Present
  • October 25: Movie: Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," I
    • Readings: Camus
    • Readings: none
  • November 1: Movie: "The Seventh Seal", II
    • Readings: Camus
  • November 3: Demographic Consequences
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 7
      • Ziegler, chpt. 14
      • Herlihy, "Generation," in Social History
  • November 8: The Family
    • Readings: Herlihy, "Deaths, Marriages, Births" in Lee (ed.)
  • November 10: Agriculture
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Sections 8, 9
      • Ziegler, chpts 13 and 16
      • Genicot. in the Cambridge Economic History, III, chpt. 8.
  • November 15: The Urban Economy
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 10
      • Ziegler, chpt. 16
  • November 17: Behavior
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Sections 11, 12
      • Huizinga, pp. 138-51
  • November 22: Education and Learning
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Sections 13-14
      • Campbell, chpt 6
  • November 24: THANKSGIVING
    • Readings: None
  • November 29: Medicine
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 15, 16
      • Campbell, chpt. 4
      • Nohl, chpt. 4
  • December 1: Society and Social Violence
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 17
      • Gasquet, chpt. 10
  • December 6: Plagues and Persecutions
    • Readings:
      • Sources: Section 18
      • Deaux, chpt. 7
      • Nohl, chpt. 8
      • Ziegler, chpt. 5
  • December 8: The Church and Religion
    • Readings:
      • Sources, Sections 19, 20
      • Campbell, chpt. 5
      • Lerner, in Black Death, ed. Williman.
      • Deaux, chpt. 8
      • Nohl, chpt. 10
  • December 13: Art
    • Readings:
      • Meiss
      • Polzer, in Black Death, ed. Williman
  • December 15: The Black Death as Turning Point
    • Readings:
      • Nohl, chpt. 12

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