The Black Death

A Quotation from the Past

“Oh happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and who will look upon our testimony as a fable.” – Petrarch


It is thought that the bacteria that caused the plague, having originated in China, were carried by the fleas on black rats. These rats hitched a ride westwards along the Silk Road trading route, reaching Europe in 1348. Estimations vary, but most historians agree that at least one-third of the European population perished. The plague was terrifying, painful and deadly.

A disease such as the plague would take a heavy toll on any society that lacked modern medicines, hygienic living conditions and well-stocked hospitals. For instance, during the 1990s, there was an outbreak of pneumonic plague in India, which led to widespread panic, attempts by the government to stop mass evacuations from slum areas and ultimately hundreds of deaths. Journalists entering the area sensibly took their own antibiotics with them. You can read a New York Times report about this outbreak here.

Although modern antibiotics had not yet been developed when the plague struck Sydney in 1900, the administrators of the city had the advantage of knowing that a bacterium had caused the disease and that rats harboured the fleas that carried it. A bounty was placed on rats – sixpence per rat according to one Melbourne report. Poor and unemployed men became professional rat catchers (see the picture below). Since city administrators in the Middle Ages were ignorant of the existence of bacteria, such targeted measures were not taken then.

Instead, the terror and panic of the suffering people often led to hysterical, superstitious and violent behaviour. Doctors and self-styled healers developed a range of bizarre, ineffective and even dangerous remedies. One group, the Brotherhood of the Flagellants, began to whip themselves as a way to pacify God and divert his wrath from them. Some accused the Jewish people of spreading the disease, which led to the persecution and murder of this already marginalised group. 

Below you will find several activities that will allow you to discover more about this horrifying disease and its effects, as well as people’s reactions and the long-term outcomes.

Picture from the Past: Bubonic Plague in Sydney, 1900

Professional rat catchers, Sydney 1900 © State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority of NSW'

Copyright: State of NSW. Kindly provided by the State Records Authority of NSW. That pile in the middle is made up of dead rats. 

Quizzes and Activities

1 Tiny Cards: An Introduction to Essential Details and Vocabulary

2 Quiz: The Black Death in 1348

3 Quiz: The History of the Black Death (very challenging vocabulary)

Click here to complete the quiz below on the full screen


4 Video: Crash Course History: Disease! (difficult words → watch with the subtitles turned on!)


Handout: Medicine at the Time of the Black Death

Handout: Social and Economic Effects of the Plague (caution: difficult!)

My Simple Concept Map (which will help you develop your own more detailed version – see the embedded version at the bottom of this post)

Assignment handout – Concept Map – PDF | Word Document (with active links)



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