The Black Death figures as one of those motifs of history whose fame can be attributed to its devastation: 1/3 of Europe’s population wiped out, new powers of autonomy for the peasants, obsession with the end of days and the frailty of human existence. And of course rats. Or is was it actually, as a recent study just suggests, thanks to gerbils? If we can’t even trust the rats, what else might we misapprehend about the Plague?
This course explores not just the vectors of the disease and the devastation it wrought, but how people at the time understood that devastation. Plagues and unexplained illnesses were not new to the fourteenth century, so is it right to say that people in 1348 knew that they were living through something different? The goal of this course is to introduce students to the late medieval experience of the Black Death through reading about medical practices, social relations, political responses, literary imaginings, and legal transactions. In doing so, students will not only gain a deeper understanding of the Black Death and the late medieval world, they will learn how to evaluate scholarly arguments, put texts in dialogue with one another, and mine primary materials.
In the first part of this course, students will meet regularly in a seminar, discussing monographs and select documents together. Students should expect a reading load of approximately one monograph a week, in addition to supplemental primary sources. These weeks are in preparation for the second phase, in which students will be writing a substantial research paper on any aspect of the Black Death, designed in consultation with the professor. At the end of the semester, students will have the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers prior to submission of the final draft.