The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting, yet chilling story This prof is an excellent storyteller. Historical sources are clearly identified.
Date published: 2020-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating & educational The Professors' enthusiasm for the subject and her extensive research/depth of knowledge are hugely beneficial to any student! I've never been so interested in such a seemingly dark subject, but this course was fascinating. It was also an odd stress reliever for me in the beginning of the Pandemic quarantine. I suppose my sub-conscience thought, "well, at least I don't have boils & we're pretty medically advanced, ie now we know for a fact through scientific methods, just how beneficial masks are..." ...Then, that Colorado squirrel tested positive for bubonic plague. LoL.
Date published: 2020-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from lively presentation Professor Armstrong has done an amazing job of presenting these historic events with enthusiasm....and expertise. She is lively and fun, and has made a grim topic very palatable. It was fun to look forward to each and every lecture, as each was a true is she. . I look forward to other lecture series of hers..Thank you so much..
Date published: 2020-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Black Death Excellent course. Dr. Armstrong takes us down so many different paths of how the Black Death affected the medieval world. Changes in society, the church, etc. It is kind of haunting the last lesson as she talks about future pandemics, as we are now in one. Highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thrilling This course taught me more about the middle ages than I learned as a history major at university.
Date published: 2020-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Engaging I watched this course while it was available on Amazon Prime and it was what introduced me to The Great Courses and made me become a subscriber. Dorsey Armstrong taught this course in an engaging manner and it was well laid out. If you are at all interested in medieval history or history of pandemics I would highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommend this excellent, fascinating class This was incredibly interesting--I found I was watching 2 and 3 classes at a time. I learned a lot about this plague as well as pandemics in general. Surprise: The plague was not a one time thing and still exists! Special note: Look for the black rats in the lecture room...
Date published: 2020-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great to watch During This COVID-19 Pandemic Professor Armstrong presents a thorough survey of the history and culture of the bubonic plague of the mid-14th century (1348-1353) and places it into context. It was introduced into Europe as a form of germ warfare by the Mongolian/Chinese barbarians, originating from (you guess it) the Wuhan region. It wiped out almost half the population of Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural at that time. But it had also the positive result as having engendered the Great Renaissance.
Date published: 2020-09-09
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The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague
Course Trailer
Europe on the Brink of the Black Death
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....

31 min
The Epidemiology of Plague
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....

29 min
Did Plague Really Cause the Black Death?
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....

32 min
The Black Death's Ports of Entry
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....

31 min
The First Wave Sweeps across Europe
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....

30 min
The Black Death in Florence
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....

30 min
The Black Death in France
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 s...

29 min
The Black Death in Avignon
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....

30 min
The Black Death in England
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....

30 min
The Black Death in Walsham
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....

30 min
The Black Death in Scandinavia
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....

30 min
The End of the First Wave
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."...

30 min
Medieval Theories about the Black Death
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....

29 min
Cultural Reactions from Flagellation to Hedonism
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....

32 min
Jewish Persecution during the Black Death
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....

32 min
Plague's Effects on the Medieval Church
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....

31 min
Plague Saints and Popular Religion
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....

30 min
Artistic Responses to the Black Death
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....

32 min
Literary Reponses to the Black Death
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....

30 min
The Economics of the Black Death
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....

30 min
The Black Death's Political Outcomes
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....

31 min
Communities That Survived the First Wave
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....

30 min
Later Plague Outbreaks: 1353-1666
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....

31 min
How the Black Death Transformed the World
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....

32 min
Dorsey Armstrong

Every turning point in the medieval world discussed in these lectures shifted the flow of the river of history, bringing us ever closer to the modern world.


Duke University


Purdue University

About Dorsey Armstrong

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, late-medieval print culture, and the Arthurian legend, on which she has published extensively, including the 2009 book Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript and Gender and the Chivalric Community in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, published in 2003. In January 2009, she became editor-in-chief of the academic journal Arthuriana, which publishes the most cutting-edge research on the legend of King Arthur, from its medieval origins to its enactments in the present moment. Her current research project-Mapping Malory's Morte-is an exploration of the role played by geography in Malory's version of the story of King Arthur.

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