Curriculum Historical Thinking History Uncovering History

Using Historical Sources about the Plague

After introducing students to the historical processes around understanding plague pandemics yesterday, I guided my classes through primary sources on the Black Death in Europe and the Middle East today. This is such a work in progress that I added documents as the day went on. Like yesterday I used Slides with Pear Deck for my mostly remote students; but, unlike yesterday, I did feel a loss of effectiveness because of the distance. Ideally, students would have discussed these documents in small groups. I may try this tomorrow, with breakout rooms, as they prepare to write. One reason that facilitating synchronous distance learning takes so much energy and concentration is that is difficult to facilitate student-student connection. Moreover, in person I would have encouraged (by which I mean relentlessly nagged) students to annotate paper copies.

That said, many students engaged with the documents and expressed understandings of the experiences and understandings of the plague. In addition to the documents in the slides below, I shared a PDF with the documents from the Paris medical faculty and Ibn al-Wardi, both the shorter and longer versions from the Stanford History Education Group’s Understanding the Black Death lesson (great document excerpts, but the Powerpoint includes a map with an outdated representation of the spread of plague). Student responses in the Pear Deck (questions in yellow) indicated solid understanding of how people responded to plague, but, as is often the case, students were less clear about how to analyze the sourcing of the documents.

My fabulous World History collaborative teammates contributed to the framework for analyzing the documents,. Thanks Ali, Bethaney, and Lomumba! Each document has two slides so that students lightly annotate through Pear Deck’s draw function, and then record responses. I suggested phrasing for sourcing analysis: start sentences with as, because, or since to identify an aspect of the source that impacts the document.

It is always a long road moving students away from binary views of sources such as reliable/unreliable or biased/objective (although no one typed “biast” today, which is a win). Several did note that the lack of accurate understanding of the plague pathology led people to speculative, religious, and/or hateful responses. Many students noted that medieval people expressed the most salient aspect of plague: death, such as the early 15th Century depiction by Giovanni Sercambi below. The real test of understanding will be tomorrow when students write.

Illustration from Giovanni Sercambi’s Le croniche di Luccha written from c. 1368 until his death from plague in 1424. Image and caption from Alchetron

With a lesson like this document selection is key. In my experience four-five documents provide enough material for students without being overwhelming. Effectively using three documents as evidence, including corroboration and sourcing analysis, to support a claim about medieval people’s experiences with plague will be proficient; students can level up by using four or five. My selection of documents emphasizes the immediate responses and reactions to the devastation of plague, and as I revise this I will consider whether or not I want to broaden that, and if so in what way.

Please leave suggestions for use primary source documents in comments below.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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