The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Presentation. We loved the concise wording and the cogent arguments. For a while we thought there was no need to go into this much detail, but then we changed our mind. The professor built the lectures from the ground up: first a fact was anchored before the next statement was forcefully presented. The logic of the interplay of events was impressive. That's the way history should be taught in the schools! As a geographer I appreciated the inclusion, and reference to the maps Btw, we found the rats quite entertaining and, fittingly, at the course's end most of them were one their backs.
Date published: 2021-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well done and interesting. We are watching these courses on the Amazon Great Courses Channel. It costs less than $10/month. It is well worth it if you like these classes. Dr. Armstrong is very interesting and organized. We started watching the course because, being caught in Covid, we wanted to see what happened in other pandemics. Glad we started watching these.
Date published: 2021-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pertinent 'Enjoyed immensely. 'Like to see an add on lecture re Covid.
Date published: 2021-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good Although this was done in 2016, it is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Dr. Armstrong discusses the possible nature(s) of the plague and she discusses the likely transmission from the Caucasus region, across the Mediterranean, north to Scandinavia, and into Russia. She notes regions that the plague seemed to bypass (such as Iceland, Finland, and Milan) and she discusses reasons that might be so. She addresses the perspective of individual families, the thinking of the medical and religious communities, and various public policy responses. Dr. Armstrong is very accessible. I have enjoyed listening to all her classes. I used the audio version. Visual aids may have been somewhat beneficial but the audio version was quite satisfactory.
Date published: 2020-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding series I am delighted with this series. The presenter is thorough, engaging and provides excellent material. Can’t recommend this enough.
Date published: 2020-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Strangely calming course on pandemic's horrors This is one of the best courses I've ever completed at The Great Courses. Dr. Dorsey Armstrong leads through many aspects of the Black Death and humanity's attempts to stop it (and then live with it), not just with the science and history of the Plague's spread but with the attempts of religions and artists to deal with it. In the time of COVID-19, I found the chronicle of humans past behaviors to be both maddening and calming. Maddening because we seem to have not evolved much in our visceral reactions to pandemics, calming because, ultimately, people are resilient and do adapt, even if not as quickly as we'd wish.
Date published: 2020-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic series The topic material was very interesting and the lecturer most engaging. You might have expected that the topic would be rather morbid, but not at all. It just proves that what has happened in the past is bound to be repeated if people do not pay attention. It is particularly important right now.
Date published: 2020-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course While occasionally slow and repetitive, the knowledge, dedication, and enthusiasm of the lecturer makes up for its few deficiencies. Immensely interesting, little details like the addition and movement of stuffed rats in the background between lectures keep the course from becoming too depressing when the realities of the Black Death begin to pile up. My one complaint would be the immense type and number of quotation boxes on screen and the cuts between them, which appear inconsistently in both when and how they choose to share the quotation, lending some lectures a "I just discovered PowerPoint transitions" feel. Otherwise, excellent.
Date published: 2020-11-07
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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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