Today begins a new series– Quick Notes! Like their older and more detailed brethren, Historical Notes, this label provides some quick reference points for select content from a The Great Courses lecture series. Today, I will start going through Dorsey Armstrong’s course The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. At the end of each note, I will ask you, the reader, to provide insight on specific aspects of the lecture and how it might be applied today.


  • Florentine, 1348– socially wealthy and stable with an extensive trade network ruled by a council dedicated to the arts. Sweet place. Until the Black Death arrived and ravaged the city; months later and the city, in the words of professor Armstrong, would be turned in a “charnel house” “practically overnight.”
  • Professor Armstrong writes ‘how every morning in the towns and cities of Italy the corpses of those who had died in the night would be placed out into the street. Eventually, funeral biers, sometimes no more than a rough board, would go through the town to collect them.’ The author of the Decameron, an eye-witness to the plague wrote “It was by no means rare for no more than one of these biers to be seen with two or three bodies upon it at a time. Many were seen to contain a husband and wife, two or three brothers and sisters, a father and son, and times without number, it would happen that two priests would be on their way to bury someone, only to find beiers to carry three or four additional biers that fallen behind them. Such was the multitude of corpses, there was not enough sufficiently consecrated ground for them to be buried in. So, when all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyard, stored tier upon tier in their hundreds, stored like ship’s cargo, each layer being covered with a thin layer of soil until the trench was filled to the top.”
  • Some writers thought the end of the world was unfolding and so left space at the end of eyewitness reports just in case someone came along after the end was over and wanted to write of post-history.
  • The Black death was not called the black death because of bodies turning black; it was called the bubonic plague because of the large lesions which formed around the groin or armpits. The term “black” draws attention not to the color of the symptoms but to the widespread horror (black equaling evil).
  • No one in the Middle Ages called the Black Death, the Black Death. Instead, they called it The Great Mortality, The Great Pestilence, or Blue Sickness (as in England). Not given its current name until centuries later.
  • Around 1340, medieval Europe looked something like this: most of Europe was Christian (wholly ruled by the church), agrarian (non-urban, farming), and feudal (bonds of service, support and protection, monarchial hierarchy). Society was organized along the Three Estates model (those who fight, those who pray, and those who work; the distillation of work for the society based upon skills). In three centuries, the population of Europe doubled. This meant a land-crunch which doubled back on the three estates model. This meant more people settled in cities. This spurred on the creation of a merchant class that didn’t wholly fit into the three estates.
  • In the aftermath of the plague, in 1360, the three estates model was wholly destroyed. This benefitted the merchants who, in their desperation, would hire peasants now able to walk where they wanted in life and sell their labor in exchange for a cash wage. The nobles, then, began to marry into the merchant class since they had little in the way of cash,


  1. Imagine a modern illness– such as a superbug– that could decimate society much in the same way that the Black Death did medieval Europe. What do you think could be some of the changes in modern society taking into account the people infected and how that would affect education and economics? In short, the class structure of society.
  2. Thinking on a micro-scale, what viruses have we seen alter society on a smaller-scale in the modern world? Describe an event– such as an ebola outbreak, for example– and list off a few ways that the aftermath of that event changed that part of the world.

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