In The Black Death: New Lessons from Recent Research, celebrated medievalist Dorsey Armstrong corrects explanations of the famous medieval pandemic that are now known to be inaccurate and offers a more robust description of plague biology. COVID-19 isn’t likely to be humanity’s last experience with a zoonotic disease, so what can we learn now from these two pandemics that could help us in the future?
The Black Death: New Lessons from Recent Research
Dorsey Armstrong is a Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she is also the head of the Department of English. She received her PhD in Medieval Literature from Duke University. She is the executive editor of the academic journal Arthuriana, which publishes cutting-edge research on the legend of King Arthur, from its medieval origins to its modern enactments. She is a recipient of the Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award, Purdue’s top undergraduate teaching honor. Her other Great Courses include The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague and The Medieval World.
01: Reassessing the Black Death
As we deal with our own 21st-century pandemic, the curious among us have looked back to the 14th-century pandemic known as the Black Death. You’ll be surprised to discover how many of our assumptions and conclusions about that time have been upended as new methods of scientific inquiry have been applied to old questions.
02: A Deeper Dive into Rat and Flea Behavior
A deeper understanding of rat and flea biology and behavior along with the 21st-century ability to examine ancient DNA have allowed us to correct long-held assumptions about the origin of the three known plague pandemics. Follow the fascinating scientific trail that now allows us to state with certainty where the plague did—and did not—originate.
03: Human-to-Human Plague Transmission
Medieval peoples suffered from the unpredictability of the pandemic as it exploded in some seasons and locations, died down, and then showed up again years later. Explore what we have recently learned about transmission of the four types of plague—bubonic, pneumonic, septicemic, and digestive—and how that affected the timing and intensity of outbreaks.
04: Plague, Grain, and the Mongols
We now know the grain trade was responsible for the movement of black rats and their fleas around the medieval world. Learn how a serious increase in European urbanization and well-established trade networks set the continent up for a devastating fall once the Mongols pushed west into the area.
05: The Big Bang of the Black Death
Scientists have discovered that what gave the Black Death its stunning lethality and transmissibility was a mutation in a bacterial strain about 100 years before the plague showed up in Europe. Explore the genetics of Yersinia pestis and learn how scientists have confirmed that plague came into the European world only one time.
06: The Fate of the Plague’s Survivors
We now understand better than ever that the experience of a pandemic—both then and now—is not a singular event or occurrence. It is an ongoing trauma, and we have no way to know when it will be over. Examine the inherent societal flaws that pandemics reveal and consider whether any of our social, economic, medical, and political safety nets held up the way we had hoped.
07: The Old World Falls Away
For those who survived the upheaval of this medieval pandemic, European life—and even the understanding of the very purpose of government—had forever changed. Study the many ways in which society responded to this massive depopulation and its associated problems by looking at the social networks that were developed to better combat plague and provide relief and support.