The Black Death Mapping and Simulation Activity (Iteration 2)

The first intervention that made use of these tools was done in Fall of 2015. A paper describing the results was presented at AERA 2017 in San Antonio. The 2015 results led to a revised version of the intervention, which took place in Fall of 2016. Results are still forthcoming, but the revised simulation and activity are available below.


  • Students are divided into groups of 6, each with a central computer. They are allowed to use smartphones during both activities but not individual laptops.
  • Students have read 4 primary sources that describe responses to plague outbreaks in Constantinople in 542 and 1 primary source that describes responses to plague outbreaks in the Mediterranean in 1348.

Day 1: Mapping (75 minutes)

Modern college town

We asked students to keep a log of where they went at what time for the same 24-hour period. They then used the information in that log to create a walking path using Google’s MyMaps tool. Students exported the KML, posted it to our learning management system with their group number and name, and the instructional staff combined the KML files from each group into a single layer.

In class, the students talked about how plague would spread using only their group’s paths at first, and then adding in the walking paths from other groups one at a time. We then had a discussion about the plague responses they had seen in their primary sources and how they might mimic those responses in their own college town.

We closed the local portion of the activity (approximately 30 minutes) by noting that their town and Constantinople were roughly the same square mileage, and they could use the limitations of their walking path to help them understand how far and where they could go in Constantinople if they had been a 6th-century citizen of the city.


We then provided students with a set of roles drawn from their 6th-century primary source readings (see below), a set of historical maps and some information about where different socio-economic groups would live, work, worship, shop and mingle in Constantinople. They were asked to create 5 average everyday walking paths using Google MyMaps, their assigned roles, and the additional resources. We used the same group-based KML layering organization so that the comparisons would be roughly the same.

Once most of the student groups had completed their Constantinople walking paths, we had a discusion about where the differences and similarities were between their town and Constantinople, and how the comparison helped them understand the plague responses in their primary sources.

Finally, we talked about the difference in population density–their town has 120,000 people and Constantionple had between 500,000 and 800,000–and how that would affect their daily experience as citizens of Constantinople.

  • Secretary: You were born into a family of some means, had a wealthy patron who financed your education in Latin, which is the administrative language of the Roman Empire even though you speak Greek. In return you participate as a functionary, living in your patron’s household. Your duties are to accompany your patron to court events, offer advice, manage your patron’s correspondence and keep the household running smoothly. You also manage your patron’s investments, which are made by investing in merchant and shipping activities both locally and across the Mediterranean and out to the Silk Road.
  • Ship Captain: You do short trips back and forth across the 2-mile stretch of water that separates Constantinople from Asia Minor in your own ship. The goods your ship carries vary widely (from people to cloth to food). You regularly meet with a merchant who provides most of your business, but you also do business with several merchants who have shops near Constantinople’s fora.
  • Beggar: You live on the streets of Constantinople. Your food supply is limited to what you beg, get from the church, or steal at one of the markets in Constantinople’s fora. You have no income other than what you collect from passers-by.
  • Merchant: Your family has built up a trading network of partners across the Mediterranean who traffic in expensive cloth, rare food stuffs, and (when necessary) grain or other less exciting goods. You distribute to local shops in Constantinople (including one of your own), in several of the fora in Constantinople, and occasionally, you travel by ship to cement a new partnership. You have an aristocratic patron whose investment is necessary (and who you therefore occasionally meet with) but who prefers you meet with his/her secretary so as not to be involved in the day-to-day work of trade.
  • Artisan: You own a small tailor shop, where you serve a wealthy, but not aristocratic, clientele. You have some expensive cloth, but mostly daily-wear cloth, available for your customers, which you procure from a merchant who built ties with your family several generations back. You occasionally make the rounds at several of the city’s markets in the fora.
  • Sailor: You do long trips back and forth across Mediterranean, from Constantinople to Alexandria (the bread basket of the Mediterranean) on someone else’s ship. Your home port is Constantinople. Your ship usually carries grain to Constantinople and other goods from Persia and China back to Alexandria, and you occasionally carry travelers. Seasonal storms often interfere with your ship’s movement. You don’t see much of the merchant whose investment keeps the ship running, but you know Constantinople well.
  • Laborer: You are a low-level laborer (not a stone mason or engineer). You work for basic wages, so you have enough to buy food in a nearby market or from street carts and to buy basic goods from local merchants. When a new public building (forum, church, city wall) is being built or an old building being repaired, you are part of the heavy-lifting crew.
  • Priest: You are ordained as a priest and are part of a bishop’s household. Your job in the household is to manage the bishop’s charitable contributions to the city, so you distribute food and clothing to the city’s poor regularly and take remaining goods to other churches for distribution. You have also begun to take on students who are interested in learning to read and write Latin. You help the sick and dying confess (because most Christians wait to confess their sins only once, just before they die).
  • Farmer: You are luckier than your neighbors, who are mostly subsistence farmers. You own a small plot of land outside of Constantinople’s walls, have a few animals (including a horse and a plow), and take the extra goods your land and animals produce to a market inside the city walls once a week. This once-weekly trip is also your chance to purchase things you may not be able to make for yourself.

Day 2: Simulation (75 minutes)

Each group of students had access to the NetLogo desktop application and the BlackDeathHistoricalSim model already downloaded on the computer at their group table. (You can test the simulation online at /theblackdeath/BlackDeathHistoricalSim.html but this method will be slow for more than 5 simultaneous users.)

Before students opened the simulation, we revisited their Constantinople walking paths and reminded them of the population differential between their college town and Constantinople.

We then guided them through an exploration of the simulation in 5-minute increments, with a key to the iconography in the simulation provided at each step (view example PPT

  1. Run the simulation a few times using the default settings for their college town and document the results.
  2. Run the simulation a few times using the default settings for Constantinople and document the results.
  3. Flip back and forth and play with variables one by one and document the results.
  4. Add the unshriven dead and abandoned bodies. What does this change about the experience? *At this point, we intervened and talked about the differences in last rites between 6th-century Christianity and 14th-century Catholicism in order to demonstrate how the simulation might mean different things applied to different historical contexts
  5. Make and operationalize your own variable based on primary sources (e.g. one student group noticed descriptions of animals dying, so they added animal subjects to the pool of possible infections). What kind of variable would it be (e.g. slider, check box, numeric or percentage value)?How would it be represented in order to effectively communicate its role in the 6th-century context we studied?