Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales offers a complex portrait of medieval Europe amid a pandemic. It hints at a world gripped by disease and mass trauma, but one also defined by human resilience, humor, and cultural vibrancy. In After the Plague, with expert Simon Doubleday, Professor of History at Hofstra University, dive into a world that is both like and unlike our own. Using firsthand accounts, famous literary texts, new scientific evidence, and cutting-edge historical interpretations, investigate the plague’s pathology, its path across the European continent, and how it affected everything from high politics to family life in the decades that followed.
After the Plague
With Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as your portal into a medieval Europe in the throes of the disease, explore how people across the continent reckoned with and responded to the new political, economic, and social realities that emerged during the Black Death.
Simon Doubleday is a Professor of History at Hofstra University. He received his BA in History from the University of Cambridge, where he completed a special program of study on the Black Death and its aftermath, and his PhD in Medieval History from Harvard University. He is a specialist in the history of medieval Europe, especially Spain.
Simon has received multiple grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also been a fellow of the New York Public Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Room, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is a former president of the American Academy of Research Historians of Medieval Spain. He participates regularly in leading medieval conferences and has been an invited lecturer at universities in England, Spain, Portugal, France, and the United States.
Simon’s books include The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance and The Lara Family: Crown and Nobility in Medieval Spain. He has coedited a number of books, including Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice; In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West, and the Relevance of the Past; and Border Interrogations: Questioning Spanish Frontiers. He was also the founding editor of the Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies.
01: Resilience: Rethinking the Black Death
As the bubonic plague rampaged across their continent, Europeans had to grapple with new and complicated moral, economic, and social realities. In the course’s inaugural lesson, explore the Black Death’s pathology and symptoms, and dive briefly into Geoffrey Chaucer’s childhood and early works to see how the initial outbreak of disease shaped the writer.
02: Medieval Globalization and the Black Death
Despite popular belief, medieval Europe was an interconnected society in the 14th century. Yet, while global connections opened new markets, they also allowed the plague to seed within and spread across the continent more easily. Investigate the public health consequences of globalization in the medieval period.
03: Death Ships: The Spread of Plague in Europe
Bustling maritime routes from England to Spain in the Middle Ages hastened the spread of disease. But what did the plague’s path on the continent look like? How quickly or slowly did it spread? Was it an urban or rural phenomenon? And how did Europeans describe the trauma and terror it caused? Zero in on Spain’s experience for potential answers.
04: Children, Plague, and Grief
The plague’s ongoing impact on European children, orphaned or killed by the disease, proved enormous. Investigate the bubonic plague’s effect on these generations of children and learn how whole towns and neighborhoods attempted to care for the orphans in their midst.
05: Famine, Flood, and Earthquakes
Catastrophe was not new to medieval men and women; they had experienced it many times over before the Black Death arrived. Explore how responses to three different kinds of disasters—famine, floods, and earthquakes—helped Europe mobilize against one of its deadliest and most devastating pandemics.
06: Plague Medicine: Opium, Gold, Poison Clouds
The medicines and methods deployed to fight the Black Death, ineffective as most ultimately were, reveal a broader turn toward scientific thinking in medieval Europe. Learn about the “plague treatises” that circulated at the time, as well as the role of religion, astrology, environment, and diet in medieval medicine.
07: Filth: How Medieval Cities Fought the Plague
The plague decimated cities with dense and crowded populations. Evaluate the impact of the Black Death on urban centers from London to Florence. Explore how and why premodern cities implemented public health and safety measures before the plague. And discover how these efforts primed urban leaders to act when catastrophe came.
08: Laughter and Joy: Boccaccio’s Decameron
Great works of literature produced during and immediately after the Black Death shed light on the thoughts, dreams, and survival strategies of Europeans reckoning with mass death. Discover how the writer Giovanni Boccaccio found humor and joy in life, expressing them in his vibrant storytelling, even amid human suffering.
09: Wives, Widows, and Witches
How did the status of women in medieval Europe change after the Black Death arrived? It’s complicated! By looking at literary characters, writers, poets, royalty, and peasants, witness how a more nuanced picture of women’s experiences emerged, as you learn about the pockets of autonomy available to some women, as well as the grim realities that affected many others.
10: Justice in the Age of Robin Hood
What did justice mean in the age of the Black Death? Harsh punishments were common in European societies, and a complex legal system had developed. Yet violent crime abounded, political corruption flourished, and people sought a deeper kind of justice in the figure of the fictional Robin Hood, as he exacted revenge on exploitative sheriffs and abbots.
11: Into the Sky: How Plague Changed Faith
Religion shaped everything from politics to the arts in medieval Europe. Yet rather than retract from or completely renounce their belief in God when faced with widespread death and despair, many Europeans strengthened their religious commitments. Investigate the period of intense religious fervor that followed the plague through Petrarch, the lovelorn Italian poet.
12: Astrology, Apocalypse, and Plague
To many, the coming of the bubonic plague signaled the apocalypse. Others pointed to a dangerous alignment of planets and stars. Explore different strands of apocalyptic thought and see how astrology—very much a respected science in the Middle Ages—legitimized these doomsday predictions.
13: Travel and Wanderlust: Sir John Mandeville
Fourteenth-century Europe witnessed lockdowns, travel restrictions, and quarantines, but that did not stop Europeans from thinking and fantasizing about international travel in strange and distant lands. Delve into Sir John Mandeville’s Travels of John Mandeville to experience the wanderlust of this period.
14: Plague in the Islamic World
Islam was an important element of medieval Spain and other parts of the medieval Mediterranean. How did they interpret the plague in accordance with their own religious and cultural values? How did they explain the Black Death, theologically and scientifically? And what might the fabulous palace of the Alhambra, in Granada, reveal about Muslim responses to the catastrophe?
15: Jewish Experiences of the Black Death
On the eve of the Black Death, many Jews had been experiencing a period of growth and prosperity, all the way from Spain to the Rhineland. The plague would change all of that. Discover the brutal effects of the plague on Jewish people across Europe, and the ways in which generations of Jews resisted a crisis that affected them in unique ways.
16: Revolution in Rome: Cola di Rienzo
The desire for freedom from feudal barons among lower-class Europeans bubbled up shortly before and exploded after the Black Death. Witness the launch of revolution in Rome in 1347, led by the ill-fated visionary leader Cola di Rienzo, to trace the eruption of popular unrest after the plague.
17: Uprising in France: The Jacquerie
Trace the medieval search for freedom in the French countryside. Unearth the real story behind the revolt known as the Jacquerie, the extreme violence that defined it, and its relationship to the plague. Grapple with the revolt’s causes and effects by examining surviving contemporary records and dramatic firsthand accounts, as well as new arguments made by medieval historians.
18: England: The Black Death and Economic Change
In England, economic activity rebounded following a period of economic decline and famine in the early 14th century, followed by the cataclysm of the Great Pestilence. Explore the market realities facing ordinary English people both before and after the plague, and probe the strategies used by a range of industries to rebuild in the face of wide scale disaster.
19: The Peasants’ Revolt: England 1381
In 1381, England exploded in the greatest rebellion in medieval history. Thousands of people descended on London, converging on the Tower, setting fire to the houses of great lords. Why did this happen? Meet the men and women involved and unravel the ideas that gave it steam.
20: The Arthurian Court of Richard II
Even as new waves of pestilence continued to strike England, Richard II’s court ushered in a period of rebirth and revitalization, which contemporaries described as a new Camelot. Get to know King Richard—his childhood, adolescence, marriage, politics, and demise—and immerse yourself in the aesthetic, artistic, and cultural achievements ushered in by his troubled but brilliant reign.
21: Plague, Heresy, and the Questioning Spirit
The same rebellious spirit that characterized the peasant revolts spilled over into religious and theological arenas. Kick off this lesson by seeing how the Monk and Friar from The Canterbury Tales reveal the problems that plagued the church in the medieval period. Then, explore reform efforts leveled at the church and the emergence of a new spirit of questioning which would last into the age of the Reformation.
22: The Passionate Mystic: Margery Kempe
The plague ushered in a period of mysticism in Europe. Catholics across the continent, unsatisfied with the formalities of Catholicism, searched for a direct, personal, and passionate connection to God. Examine the passion of the mystic Margery of Kempe as a case study to understand the spiritual environment in post-plague Europe.
23: The Canterbury Tales and the Specter of Death
Chaucer’s masterpiece, written at the end of our period, shows how European authors grappled with the enormity of the plague in their works. Examine stories like “The Clerk’s Tale,” “The Tale of Melibee,” and “The Man of Law’s Tale” that highlight stoicism and human resilience in the face of extreme adversity and misfortune.
24: The Plague and Us: Reaching across Time
Finish the course with some final thoughts about what the plague and its ultimate impact on Europe reveal about the dynamism of the medieval period as well as the strength of human spirit across time. Explore how the experience of the plague is captured in modern art, film, and literature.