The Black Death that broke out in 1348 in medieval Europe and North Africa was caused by a bacteria (Y.Pestis), not a virus. The 1348 outbreak we all learned about in middle school wasn’t the first. It also wasn’t the last. An outbreak in the early 20th century that started in China hit Hawaii in 1899-1900 and San Francisco in 1900-1904. There were 1000 documented cases of plague in the US between 1900 and 2012, and the U.S. sees an average of 10 new cases each year, mostly in the southwest (New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona). In all of these pandemics, medical responses were shaped by social, cultural and economic norms that governed how people fit plague into their world view.
|"Just seeing the inevitability of death in Constantinople with that density of people and the visualization of something that didn't really seem very [serious].... Otherwise you wouldn't think that these [primary source authors] are real…. "||This terrible and mighty scourge with which the whole world was lashed in our days…not over the afflictions of one city…but over many cities which God's wrath turned into a wine-press and pitilessly trampled and squeezed all their inhabitants within them like fine grapes. John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History (circa 542 C.E.)|
Our impulse is to read John’s description of plague in 540s Constantinople as residents of a modern-day college town. Easily accessible antibiotics and speedy transportation make it easy to dismiss descriptions of people being squashed like grapes as overly dramatic, or to assume the past was backward and the people who lived in it were ignorant.
What if we could use elements of our modern-day experience in Bloomington to help us understand Constantinople’s sixth-century context? Our goal in this study was to expose students’ present context, help them compare and contrast that present context to the past, and then connect their new contextual understanding to sixth-century primary sources that described social and cultural factors in plague response.
The walls around sixth-century Constantinople are roughly the square mileage of our college town but with different population densities (150K and 500-800K respectively). We used that to make context more salient in an educational intervention in a college-level introductory history course of 94 people organized into 16 tables of 6 students each:
We are analyzing results from iteration 2 of the intervention but have some information and resources for the activities for educators who would like to use them in class.