The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

Course No. 8241
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 8241
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, it does feature maps that demonstrate how the plague spread year-over-year, images of manuscripts and art and 3-D models, as well as on-screen text to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Investigate the medical understandings of plague.
  • Follow how the plague traveled by sea across the Mediterranean, invading port cities and then radiating inward.
  • Discover how the plague's death toll dramatically altered the balance of power between labor and management.
  • Explore the flagellant movement, whose adherents tortured themselves publicly to atone for the sins of the world.
  • Witness how numerous governmental functions dramatically broke down during the plague.
  • Consider how diseases and pandemics have shaped human societies and individual behavior throughout history.

Course Overview

In the late 1340s, a cataclysmic plague shook medieval Europe to its core. The bacterial disease known to us as the Black Death swept westward across the continent, leaving a path of destruction from Crimea and Constantinople to Italy, France, Spain, and ultimately most of Europe, traveling as far west as England and Iceland. Within these locations, the plague killed up to 50% of the population in less than 10 years—a staggering 75 million dead.

Many of us know the Black Death as a catastrophic event of the medieval world. But three vital elements of the story often go unrecognized:

  • The Black Death was arguably the most significant event in Western history, profoundly affecting every aspect of human life, from the economic and social to the political, religious, and cultural.
  • In its wake, the plague left a world that was utterly changed, forever altering the traditional structure of European societies and forcing a rethinking of every single system of Western civilization: food production and trade, the Church, political institutions, law, art, and more.
  • In large measure, by the profundity of the changes it brought, the Black Death produced the modern world we live in today.

While the story of the Black Death is one of destruction and loss, its breathtaking scope and effects make it one of the most compelling and deeply intriguing episodes in human history. Understanding the remarkable unfolding of the plague and its aftermath provides a highly revealing window not only on the medieval world but also on the forces that brought about the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and modernity itself.

Speaking to the full magnitude of this world-changing historical moment, The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, taught by celebrated medievalist Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, takes you on an unforgettable excursion into the time period of the plague, its full human repercussions, and its transformative effects on European civilization.

A Catastrophe Unprecedented in Human Experience

In 24 richly absorbing lectures, you’ll follow the path of the epidemic in its complete trajectory across medieval Europe. You’ll examine the epidemiological causes of the disaster; the social panic it spawned; its influence on religion, society, politics, economics, and art; and the long-term consequences for a continent that, less than two centuries later, would have the technology and the wherewithal to explore a new world.

In the process, you’ll learn about these remarkable and emblematic effects of the Black Death:

  • By revealing the corruption and inadequacies of the Church in the face of people’s desperate need, the plague sowed the seeds of the Reformation.
  • The plague upended the class system in Europe, permanently changing the balance of power between laborers and lords, peasants and nobles.
  • The epidemic transformed social opportunities for the working and merchant classes: peasants could become clergy, serfs could become tenant farmers, merchants could marry into the nobility, and women could enter trades and professions.
  • Perhaps most surprising of all, those who survived the plague were often wealthier than they’d been before, and had access to more opportunities.

These changes utterly upended structures of social, economic, and religious power that had been in place for centuries, leaving chaos in their wake—and room for new ideas and institutions to arise.

An Epic Story of Loss and Metamorphosis

In measuring the Black Death’s vast societal impact, you’ll explore subject matter such as:

  • The medical causes and underpinnings of the plague – Investigate the epidemiology of Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium. You’ll study the three main varieties of plague, how the disease was transmitted, and how other disease factors may have contributed to the Black Death’s monumental devastation.
  • The epidemic’s transit across medieval Europe – Track how the plague traveled by both maritime and overland trade routes, and witness the individual stories and shattering drama of its arrival in communities such as Florence, Avignon, Walsham, and Paris.
  • The Black Death’s impact on religion and faith – Discover how the Church appeared powerless to provide any remedy or relief from the plague, which eroded its prestige, moral authority, and temporal power. Observe how direct expressions of religious devotion by common people, such as pilgrimage, flagellation, and veneration of saints, increased dramatically in response to the plague’s ravages.
  • The plague and European economies – Examine how the huge loss of labor and manpower led to social mobility and greatly increased economic opportunities for workers and merchants, and accelerated the rise of the merchant class to rival the economic power of the nobility.
  • Political reverberations of the Black Death – Grasp how the political scene in many places changed dramatically, as nobles came under new economic pressure. The traditional ruling order of those who fight (nobles), those who pray (clergy), and those who work (everyone else) was undone by the new power of labor and trade, and the nobles’ attempts to maintain their previous status triggered unrest and revolts.
  • The historical legacy of the epidemic – Take account of the ways in which the events of the Black Death shaped the future of the West, leaving behind a world in which serfs could buy their freedom, and where, for the first time, leaders and governments were answerable to every level of society.

The Astonishing Human Dimensions of the Plague

In a masterful act of historical storytelling, Professor Armstrong reveals the unfolding of the plague as an endlessly surprising and enthralling saga, illuminating the story with vivid maps, works of art, and manuscripts, as well as gripping contemporary accounts by writers such as Boccaccio and Petrarch. In the course of the narrative, you’ll encounter the full spectrum of poignant human reactions to the epidemic, from terrified families abandoning their stricken children and clergy recoiling from the dying to astounding individual acts of compassion and self-sacrifice for loved ones and strangers alike.

You’ll bear witness to many psychosocial responses, among them the Flagellant movement, whose members publicly tortured themselves to appease the wrath of God; the French town whose populace believed riotous merrymaking would keep the plague at bay; and a range of extreme behavior from hedonistic indulgence and crazed dancing to the tragic scapegoating of Jewish communities. In a fascinating view into the medieval mindset, you’ll explore 14th-century theories of the plague, from theological constructs to explanations of its origins in astrological conjunctions, “corrupted air,” and earthquakes. You’ll also encounter, in medical treatises, the singular figure of the plague doctor, dressed in broad-brimmed hat, long coat, and a beaked, birdlike mask filled with sweet-smelling herbs.

Professor Armstrong details how the plague brought new forms of visual art, such as the extraordinary paintings of the Danse Macabre and Triumph of Death traditions. In the unusual economic climate of the times, plague-themed works of art were commissioned not only by the nobility, but also by the likes of bakers, gardeners, and blacksmiths. And you’ll discover how, in the midst of devastation, the plague directly inspired some of the greatest literary masterpieces the world has ever produced, such as the works of Boccaccio, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Majestic in scope and remarkable in detail, The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague takes you to the heart of one of Western history’s most catalytic and galvanizing moments, the effects of which gave us the modern world.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Europe on the Brink of the Black Death
    Begin to contemplate the enormity of the Black Death's impact on the medieval world. As context for the harrowing events to come, take account of the state of medieval society on the eve of the plague. In particular, investigate the religious, economic, and political structures of mid-14th-century Europe. x
  • 2
    The Epidemiology of Plague
    Explore the medical understanding of plague, as seen in the 6th-century Plague of Justinian, the Black Death of the 1300s, and the 19th-century Third Pandemic. Examine the three predominant varieties of plague, the symptomatology of each, and scientific theories as to the nature and transmission of the disease that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. x
  • 3
    Did Plague Really Cause the Black Death?
    In recent years, scholars have reassessed the causes of the Black Death, questioning how it spread through medieval Europe with such astonishing speed and virulence. Here, investigate additional factors that may have contributed to the devastation, such as other diseases, bacteria, and other possible forms of transmission. x
  • 4
    The Black Death's Ports of Entry
    Now examine the plague's first sustained appearance in Europe, at the Crimean trading port of Caffa. Learn about the Mongol siege of the city that preceded the outbreak, and how the plague moved west with escaping sailors. Follow the spread of the plague to Constantinople, to Italy, and into France and England. x
  • 5
    The First Wave Sweeps across Europe
    Explore how the plague traveled by sea across the Mediterranean, invading port cities and then radiating inward. To get a view of the unfolding devastation, study the events in Sicily, Mallorca, and Avignon, highlighting first-person accounts. Assess ways of measuring the plague's impact and the difficulty of comprehending the scope of the disaster. x
  • 6
    The Black Death in Florence
    Observe how Florence, the most advanced community in medieval Europe, dealt with the crippling effects of the plague. Learn about the extraordinary and diverse responses of citizens, and see how city leaders took steps to slow the spread of the disease, to counteract the breakdown of laws and government, and to restore the city. x
  • 7
    The Black Death in France
    Witness the plague's horrific impact at Marseille, and uncover how citizens responded with unusual solidarity. Study the ravages and drastic measures taken at Bordeaux, and see how news of outbreaks sparked violence and the scapegoating of Jews. Grasp the monumental death toll in Paris, whose traumatized public reacted with unbridled hedonism, resignation, and numb indifference to the ubiquitous suffering. x
  • 8
    The Black Death in Avignon
    As the 14th-century seat of the papacy, Avignon presents an exceptional case. Learn about the lavish, hedonistic lifestyle of the papal court under Pope Clement VI, and review the range and complexity of Avignon's responses to the Black Death, encompassing both religious and science-based efforts. Investigate the populace's surprising resilience. x
  • 9
    The Black Death in England
    The plague ravaged England with stunning ferocity. Consider evidence of other possible disease agents that added to its effects, as well as factors in the environment that exacerbated the epidemic. Follow how the plague spread through inland waterways, with staggering losses to peasant populations and monasteries, and a resulting search for explanations of God's wrath. x
  • 10
    The Black Death in Walsham
    The village of Walsham provides a vivid view of how English society was upended by the plague. Learn about the manorial system, where peasants lived under a local lord and landholder. Discover how the plague's death toll dramatically altered the balance of power between labor and management, transforming the economic opportunities of peasants. x
  • 11
    The Black Death in Scandinavia
    The Black Death reached Scandinavian countries at different times, by different routes. Follow the plague's arrival by ship in Norway, then its movement into Sweden and Denmark, and observe how Scandinavian social customs worsened its toll. Learn also about a unique form of folklore and mythos that arose in Scandinavia in response to the plague. x
  • 12
    The End of the First Wave
    Track the final stages of the plague's initial path through 14th-century Europe, from its incursion into Germanic lands to its devastation of Poland and Russia. Study the socioeconomic conditions within Russia, where lack of labor led to a slave-like system of serfdom, and consider psychosocial responses such as the building of one-day votive churches."" x
  • 13
    Medieval Theories about the Black Death
    Observe how learned minds responded to the plague through the writing and dissemination of plague treatises. Review theories regarding the plague's appearance, from astrological conjunctions and weather to those of corrupted" air, eclipses, and earthquakes. Take account of contemporary sanitation procedures, medical remedies, and the practices of plague doctors." x
  • 14
    Cultural Reactions from Flagellation to Hedonism
    Delve into the range of psychosocial responses people had to the plague and to the knowledge of its inescapability. Explore the flagellant movement, whose adherents tortured themselves publicly to atone for the sins of the world. On the opposite end, learn about extreme hedonistic responses, from sexual licentiousness to choreomania"-obsessive ritual dancing." x
  • 15
    Jewish Persecution during the Black Death
    Examine the history of anti-Semitism in medieval Europe and the unfolding of conspiracy theories during the plague that Jews were poisoning the Christian population. Witness how anti-Semitic hysteria led to horrific violence and the execution of Jewish populations, even as both Christian and secular leaders attempted to quell such actions. x
  • 16
    Plague's Effects on the Medieval Church
    The Black Death dealt serious blows to the institution of the Church. Learn how the plague's death toll among the clergy upset the hierarchy and management of religious affairs. Also investigate how the Church's failure to affect any cure or relief from the plague led to a weakening of its authority and status. x
  • 17
    Plague Saints and Popular Religion
    Religious devotion at the popular level proliferated during the Black Death. Follow the dramatic increase in activities such as religious pilgrimage, the building of chantry chapels, and the veneration of saints. Witness the struggle between the official Church doctrine and popular religious beliefs, as people searched desperately for comfort in their darkest hour. x
  • 18
    Artistic Responses to the Black Death
    Discover how artists confronted the plague through new and innovative forms of expression. Among these, study the creation of transi tombs with graphic sculptural effigies of the dead, as well as the remarkable paintings, murals, and woodcuts of the memento mori tradition, which sought to remind viewers of their mortality. x
  • 19
    Literary Reponses to the Black Death
    The events of the Black Death inspired some of history's greatest literary masterpieces. In this lecture, uncover the range of textual responses to the plague, highlighting William Langland's dream-vision poem Piers Plowman and Boccaccio's Decameron. Learn how the plague set Geoffrey Chaucer on the path to literary immortality. x
  • 20
    The Economics of the Black Death
    Investigate how the plague initially brought massive loss of labor, administrative manpower, and the tax base, as well as far-reaching disruption of farming. Grasp the process by which economic opportunities for the lower and merchant classes-including women-were transformed, and how those who survived were, in most cases, much wealthier than before. x
  • 21
    The Black Death's Political Outcomes
    The social and economic changes brought by the plague were inextricably linked to the sphere of politics. Witness how numerous governmental functions dramatically broke down during the plague, and study how, in the aftermath, many governments attempted to maintain the pre-plague status quo, which was untenable in the new world order. x
  • 22
    Communities That Survived the First Wave
    Despite the vast spread of the Black Death throughout the European continent, several communities were notably spared during the first wave of the 14th century. In the examples of Finland, Milan, and Nuremberg, investigate how factors of geography, timing, preventive action, and hygiene contributed to saving certain populations. x
  • 23
    Later Plague Outbreaks: 1353-1666
    Chart subsequent occurrences of plague across Europe following the Black Death of the 14th century, culminating with the Great Plague of London of 1665-66. Learn how people developed critical strategies to combat outbreaks, from administrative bodies created to deal with the plague to the phenomena of pesthouses for the sick, plague pits, and quarantines. x
  • 24
    How the Black Death Transformed the World
    In conclusion, reflect on how the economic, social, and political worlds of Europe reinvented themselves to accommodate the deep changes brought about by the plague. Finally, through examples ranging from medieval smallpox to the recent occurrence of Ebola, consider how diseases and pandemics have shaped human societies and individual behavior throughout history and continue to do so today. x

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Your professor

Dorsey Armstrong

About Your Professor

Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. The holder of an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University, she also taught at Centenary College of Louisiana and at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include medieval women writers,...
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Reviews

The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 184.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course on a challenging topic Wonderful course on a challenging topic. All aspects are addressed; history, art, literature, psychology, you name it. The impact of black death and its consequences are sometimes underestimated, this course was revealing. Passionate teacher with profound knowledge, thumbs up.
Date published: 2018-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plag I have completed 50% of the courses and thoroughly love it. Professor Dorsey is very knowledgeable and engaging. The quality of the lectures and graphics are outstanding. I like the fact that each lecture is about 30 minutes long which makes it easy to fit into my schedule. This is my first "Great Courses" course and I will definitely do more of them.
Date published: 2018-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Suprising details and insights I didn't know what this would be like. I knew only a few things about the plague from high school. I listened to it while biking at the gym over a few weeks. Professor Armstrong has a sunny personality, which helped with the dark content. She conveys a sense of wonder about surprising details and insights. (She was very well-informed!) I leaned a great deal about many dimensions and impacts of the plague that I didn't know before, and it left me with a lot to think about, when it comes to social structure, tragedy, and how humans react to a crisis.
Date published: 2018-06-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I thought there was way too much repetition from lecture to lecture.
Date published: 2018-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating overview This was my first endeavor into the GreatCourses. I found this lecture series to be excellent. I loved the way that it looked different aspects of the plague and then brought it into more modern perspective.
Date published: 2018-06-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting but too Repetitive I borrowed this course from my local library. I knew almost nothing about the Black Death, so most of the content was brand new to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the course. I enjoyed the instructor's presentation style and pace. The 2nd half, however, bogged down for me. Much of the material was repetitive of what had already been covered in the first half. The instructor went into more detail on some things in the 2nd half, but I don't feel it required an additional 12 lectures to do. I think 16 - 18 lectures would have been much more appropriate for the amount of material included in the course. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the course but found my mind wandering repeatedly during the 2nd half. I'd recommend it if you can borrow it from a library or friend but I do not think it is worth purchasing.
Date published: 2018-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Memento Mori This is a fascinating course, very well taught, and with a not-very-hidden message for everyone: Yes, we're all going to die, but what counts is how we live. While the topic may seem narrow, its effect on the world was enormous. Aside from killing half the population of Europe, it may be convincingly argued - as our professor demonstrates - that it was a primary cause of the end of feudalism and of the start of the Renaissance. I found the detailed history to be inherently interesting, as well as crucial to understanding the subsequent development of Western history and culture. Professor Armstrong is outstanding. She speaks in a clear conversational style, is well-organized, and kept my attention and interest throughout. She is also excellent when discussing aspects of the plague which are outside her own field, including its medical details and its economic and political effects. As others have noted, she speaks from a secular perspective, and there is much criticism of the response of the church to the horrors of the Black Death, but this is a critique of human foibles, not of religion per se. I do wish, as has also been noted, that there had been more details of the effect of the plague on areas outside Europe, especially of its onset in and eventual return to Russia, India and China. My only other quibble is that the use of the term "morbidity" is often unclear. In modern medicine "50% morbidity" means 50% of people with a disease die, but in this course it usually seems to mean that 50% of the entire population die. The many visuals in the video course were very helpful (and include a number of quite graphic illustrations and photos), and the Course Guidebook is well-written. So - an excellent course which I recommend to any with an interest in the specific topic, in the history of Western civilization, or more generally in the human response to and recovery from overwhelming devastation. The final lecture will actually leave you hopeful for the future.
Date published: 2018-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A major event in history examined I have always been interested in history, and this course is an examination of a major event that had results that have come down through almost 700 years to this day. I have done some reading on the plague before the course, and it was interesting to see this as a second approach to the subject. There is a short section at the start which examines the plague from a medical viewpoint. The major part of the course examines the immediate results of the plague as it swept across Europe, then examines the longer term results.
Date published: 2018-04-30
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