Imagine that you could invoke a powerful spiritual being to justify your position, your actions and your power. Every time someone questioned your actions or doubted your motives, you could fall back on your entitlements as the chosen one of this powerful being, who had theoretically ordained you and anointed you as the person in charge. If your underlings believed in the existence of this being, your position would be impregnable.
Or would it?
There’s usually a downside to this kind of religious propaganda, even though it has been employed by many monarchs and emperors in history to underpin their supposedly unassailable authority. If things started to go wrong, if the crops failed or there was a flood or natural disaster, the very argument that you once used to justify your domination might also be used to dispute its validity. Perhaps that divine being is questioning your so-called birthright. Perhaps you don’t deserve that birthright any more.
For centuries, the “Mandate of Heaven” was the basis of the Chinese emperors’ overwhelming power, yet this belief in a divine blessing could be hijacked by opponents as proof of their unworthiness too. For this reason, the dynasties of China could last for centuries and seem invulnerable, only to be challenged, to fall and to be replaced. The concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” could be conveniently used to explain both their lasting power and their fall from grace.
Kind regards from Ms Green (no relationship to John and Hank)
After reading your text on the ancient dynasties of China, select one that interests you in particular and create a dossier on its origins, rise to power, cultural and technological achievements and legacy.
Then construct a little quiz for your fellow students at this link. Use a variety of question types, including multiple choice, chronological order and matching. You will need to create an account in order to do this, using your school email account. If you would prefer, you can make a set of Tiny Cards on your chosen dynasty.
The people of ancient China were inventive both physically and mentally. As you already know, they invented paper, gunpowder, the compass and movable printing. They began to spin silk around 6000 years ago.
Today, however, you will be learning about their inventive ideas, their ways of thinking and their philosophies of life.
Set out your notes in any way that seems appropriate to you. Here are some options:
Create a set of Tiny Cards through Duolingo, titled “Chinese Philosophies of Life” or something similar. You may decide to make one set for each of the philosophies: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Here is my starter set for Taoism to gain an overview of both the philosophy and the card-making concept:
Present your work on a double page of your workbook, including headings, drawings and fact boxes.
Create a PowerPoint or an Infographic through a site like Piktochart – or use your own software.
Include dot points, sentences, symbolsandpictures to make your work visually attractive and engaging and to ensure that you rework and reconstruct what you read.
At the same time, ensure that you include answers to the questions I have typed below each philosophy or philosopher.
Eventually I shall ask you to express your own opinions about each philosophy. That’s why, as you read about each one, I would like you to ask yourselves:
“What do I believe? Is this what I think? How is it similar to or different from my own philosophy of life? Could I adopt this as something to believe in – or not?”
You might even react like this:
“I’ve never thought about that before, but now that I’ve read about it, it makes sense.”
Ultimately you will be thinking about your own philosophy of life, which might well borrow elements from all three of the philosophies below.
Type out the most fundmental point of your own personal philosophy of life and put it into a comment for others in the class to read. For example, this is mine:
Kindness towards others is a fundamental principle that my mother taught me. I believe that mercy is more important than justice and forgiveness more healing than retribution. I would prefer to be a victim of injustice than a person who acts unjustly.
It seems that in every age and almost every land, at least since we’ve been living in so-called civilisations and not roaming as hunter-gatherers, some people have developed a desire for power that makes them forget their humanity.
This drive to seize absolute control of others’ lives leads power-hungry people to commit horrific and heartless acts of cruelty. They oppress their own people and usually the peoples that they conquer. The pain such tyrants inflict is never forgotten.
The famous historian, Sima Qian, said of Qin Shi Huang, the tyrant who united China and in the process terrorised its people:
Qin is a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a wolf.
If the Qin should ever get his way with the world, then the whole world will end up his prisoner.
Your task today is to find out about the life and actions of Qin Shi Huang. Which actions of his would you characterise as tyrannical? In other words, which actions were inhumane, oppressive, cruel and merciless? Use the links below or others.
♥ Set out your written or typed notes in a format that allows four subheadings like or similar to those below. You may choose to copy this table into a Word document if you find it useful for corralling your thoughts.
All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. Edmund Burke
Sometimes, when I’m in the mood for summing up history in one sentence (which no one should ever try to do), I come out with wild, unsubstantiated statements like this: “History is the story of how tyrants constantly try to seize power and of how the rest of us, conversely, dream up ways of stopping them.”
Hmm, I realise that there are a few more nuances to history than that comment suggests, but the issue of tyranny is certainly a recurrent theme. Here is a summary of how you answered the first key question on this topic:
How do tyrants seize power in the first place?
• Tyrants intimidate the weak.
• They eliminate potential threats by silencing vocal people or sending them into exile, through mass imprisonments, by establishing a reign of terror and by controlling the press.
• Since they often make minuscule changes that seem minor at first and that many citizens barely notice or are too afraid to criticise, they gradually modify the rules to their own advantage.
• They promise what they cannot deliver in reality by convincing people that they can solve problems with simple solutions and empty words.
A List of Words for Describing the Characteristics and Actions of Tyrants
Verbs: intimidate, threaten, instil fear, run fraudulent elections, accuse, force confessions, deport, massacre, brainwash, persecute, torture, banish, exile, assassinate, execute, imprison, oppress, suppress, subjugate, repress, murder, set up labour camps or death camps, abolish the rule of law, monopolise the press, conceal the truth…
Nouns: cruelty, threat, malice, fear, despotism, dictatorship, autocracy, corruption, ambition, military coup, coup d’état (takeover of the state), absolute power
But surely it’s not all blood and gore! Am I just spreading a stereotype with the help of a few old Hollywood movies?
Well, not entirely. Even the relatively restrained BBC Website refers to the Romans as “ingenious but brutal”.
I think you have to remember both of these aspects of the ancient Romans as you learn about them. Could one employ these two adjectives to summarise the history of the human race? What do you think?
Even though the Romans were in many ways warlike and vicious, they imposed an enforced peace upon their massive Empire.This is sometimes referred to as the “Pax Romana”, which is in itself a kind of paradox, an internal contradiction, for despite the Romans’ lust for conquest and their enslavement of many conquered people, many states were able to enjoy relative peace and stability under Roman control.
This means that there were great and less bloody accomplishments as well as the blood sports, corruption, poisonings and cruelty. Indeed, the legacies of ancient Rome are still dotted over their former territories, in the shape of aqueducts, ancient roads, architecture and amphitheatres.
Even the letters I am using to type this post hail from the Latin script, the most widely used form of writing in the world today. Latin may be a dead language, but it evolved into the Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish, and it lives on in countless words and expressions in other languages, including English.
So in many respects, the Romans are still among us. Like the genes of the Neanderthals.
Goodness, history is getting almost spooky.
Regards from Ms Green
On the Road to Rome:
Look closely at this map of the ancient Roman Empire. Can you identify the names of ancient lands under the control of the Romans and match them with their modern names?
Watch this video animation of how Rome might have looked around the year AD 320.
Once upon a time, there was a young boy called Jean-François who was very quiet and studious. Oddly enough, although he loved books, he was not content with reading only his own language.
He wanted to read languages that he could not understand.
In fact, the languages that almost no one could understand interested him more than anything else. The only people who knew these languages were scholars in universities who had spent their lives in the study of ancient texts and musty scrolls.
Jean-François learned Persian and Sanskrit, along with many other ancient tongues. He also began work on a dictionary and grammar of the Coptic language and used this language to write his journal.
At the time, he had no idea that this language would allow him to unlock an ancient mystery, a written script that people hadn’t been able to read for more than 1500 years. Through his work, scholars can now read hieroglyphics, the written language of the ancient Egyptians.
There is of course a moral to this story. You may think something you’re learning now is just for fun, or perhaps that you are learning it just because your teacher wants to be a slave-driver.
Nevertheless, put your new knowledge on the back-burner of your mind and let it gently simmer. One day, in a decade or two, it might help you to find a job, learn a related skill, develop a product or medicine, write a book or change the world. Even if this knowledge is never employed for a precise and discernible purpose, it will become part of the creative and versatile human being that you already are and will continue to become.
A story within a story:
Euclid was an ancient Greek whose mathematical textbooks were used until the 19th century and whose work is still the basis of related study today. He was teaching a young man geometry when his student, after learning the first theorem, unwisely asked: “What shall I get by learning these things?” Euclid called his slave and said: “Give this young man a few coins, since he must get something from what he learns”.
Perhaps this is what Euclid meant:
When you learn something, you shouldn’t worry what it gives you. Leave that to the “grand Perhaps”, in Robert Browning’s words.
The Power of the Written Word
The power of the written word is immense. With our ability to write, we can compose a love poem, pass laws that bring justice to thousands (or deny it), pen moving lyrics for a song, tap out a tweet, write a comment online or correspond with a loved one far away.
Human talents such as writing can help us to soar above the tiresome details of everyday life, but they can also be employed for destructive purposes. For instance, you could write lies and slander and so use the written word to destroy reputations. If you were a dictator or a tyrant, you could issue orders that might destroy the lives of the people you were oppressing. You could use writing to enslave others. You could even write a death sentence.
All the same, can you imagine how many aspects of human life would be different, how impoverished life would be, without this simple, supreme gift of human expression?
You see, once you can write down a language, you can preserve ideas beyond your own lifetime and send them across the world.
You can give orders, compile books of quotations, remember speeches and create literature. Your ideas can travel through time and space. They are no longer dependent upon your physical presence.
Writing makes us all time travellers.
Writing in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians used writing to administer their complex hierarchical society, to give orders, to tot up taxes, to write the spells that would protect the dead in the afterlife and to describe their lives. Their tombs were covered with the beautiful, pictorial symbols we call hieroglyphics.
The knowledge of how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, however, was lost for more than 1500 years, until Jean-François Champollion figured out how to decipher these beautiful and mysterious symbols. As a boy he used to write his journal in Coptic, the language used by the early Christian Church in Egypt, but long since dead.
A language is considered dead when no living child speaks it as his mother tongue. No living child had spoken Coptic for over 1500 years, but it turned out to be the one written language that could provide clues to the sounds of ancient Egyptian speech.
Never suspecting that Coptic might supply the vital link to understanding hieroglyphics, Champollion learned it as a teenager, along with several other dead languages. It was knowledge that he placed on the back-burner of his mind. One day that knowledge would burst into flame. One day it would illuminate the study of ancient Egypt.
As you read the links below, look for or think of answers to these questions (and write or type brief notes):
a Write your name in hieroglyphics and write 3 dot points about the characteristics of this ancient script.
b What is a cartouche? How did this symbol help in the decipherment of hieroglyphics?
c Champollion wrote that “phonic” symbols were the basis of hieroglyphics. What does this mean?
d Write a comment: How can writing be used for positive, life-affirming purposes? Conversely, how can it be employed to hurt, to harm or to oppress other human beings?
1 Discover the basic details of hieroglyphics at these links:
Today you can tackle some revision on the Stone Age and then begin an intellectual journey along the Nile River in order to observe the civilization of the ancient Egyptians. I hope you enjoy the trip.
Kind regards, Ms Green
1 The Natufians
The “Natufians” were hunter-gatherers whose descendants eventually became the first farmers and herders in the Fertile Crescent. Ultimately a great civilisation developed in that region. The people of that civilisation were called theSumerians and they are generally credited with inventing the wheel (some question this assumption) and developing the first writing (this is widely accepted). These were remarkable achievements for people with hardly any wood, whose best material for a writing surface and for building houses was mud.
Below there is also a little Quizlet on ancient Egypt, which will help you to learn many of the words connected with this topic. As an added incentive, you can play the Gravity game, but only after cycling through the digital flashcards at least once.
3 The ancient Egyptians – an Introduction
The ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza without the wheel. In addition, they developed their own system of writing, probably influenced by the Sumerians. The ancient Egyptians often get the credit for domesticating cats, but some believe that this occurred much earlier in Cyprus. It is undeniable, however, that Egyptians loved cats. They also embalmed bodies with great skill and lived successfully in a land that, except for a thin fertile strip near its river, was basically desert.
It was an improbable place for the development of such a major and successful civilization, made possible only by the existence of that river, the Nile, and by the talents of the people. Every year the Nile delivered its fertile silt to the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, its floodwaters sweeping down from the Ethiopian mountains in the south to the plains of the north. Every year the Egyptian peasant farmers used that silt and water to crop their land and grow the food that supported the whole population.
Some of my students think life would have been much easier once farming began. They point out that people would no longer have encountered as much danger from hunting and would have felt more confidence about having food when they needed it.
While these are fair points, farming in ancient Egypt was labour-intensive, to say the least. A peasant farmer was also at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This was no easy life. Hunter-gatherers six or seven thousand years before in a fertile area might well have had more leisure time and fewer people telling them what to do – and no one to tax them as well.
4 Some Introductory Websites and Videos
Find out more about ancient Egypt at these links. This is just a preliminary wander along the Nile River:
Congratulations on navigating your way through the first days and weeks at our school.
Sometimes the school buildings seem to me like an old city that grew organically, without any architectural planning and forethought. That’s why they sometimes strike me as a friendly set of rabbit burrows, with little holes and passages leading to unexpected nooks and crannies. If you are well on your way to discovering where everything is, then you should feel proud of your accomplishment. I’m still hoping one day to discover a Room of Requirement…
This blog is for my history students in Year 7 and 8. If you cycle through the posts that I’ve written since 2009, when I started the blog, you will see the kind of work I have set my students over the years.
The first task, below, is one of my favourites, because it deals with a group of people, of hominids, of extinct human beings, who have often been denigrated; yet they represent one of the abiding enigmas of historical enquiry. Over the many years since I began teaching history (I’m becoming an artefact myself), the knowledge about Neanderthals has changed. For instance, most scientists now believe, thanks to the revolution in our understanding of the human genome, that some of our genes do indeed come from Neanderthals. Even 20 years ago, that was still uncertain.
I wish you the very best for your studies at our school and look forward to hearing and reading your comments, which I am sure will be witty, quirky, insightful and enlightening.
A Mystery from History
Here’s a mystery from history for you to contemplate. How come the Neanderthals died out or became extinct? They had already survived the most life-threatening conditions you could possibly imagine. They were strong and well adapted to the cold. Their brains were larger than any other hominid’s, before them or since. That includes us!
There are many questions that surround the Neanderthals’ existence and their premature departure from this earth. For instance, scientists have been trying for many years to determine whether modern humans could have interbred with Neanderthals. The Max Planck Institute in Germany found evidence of Neanderthal genes in our genome in 2010. Only recently, however, another group of scientists have cast doubt on the theory that Neanderthals could have interbred with Homo sapiens. You can read information on these topics by clicking on the links below.
It seems to me that the Neanderthals were tantalisingly similar to us, yet mysteriously different as well:
♦They didn’t farm, but then neither did we at that time in our past. No one farmed until 10,000 years ago. By then the Neanderthals had been gone for over 20,000 years.
♦They didn’t create rock art (at least to the best of our knowledge).
♦Yet they buried their dead and looked after their old and infirm. There is evidence to show that they were already burying their dead 120,000 years ago.
♦You might even assume that they should have been more likely to survive than we were. For instance, they were better adapted than Homo sapiens to a frozen world. They survived thousands of years of Ice Age. Their bones were far stronger than ours. Our bones are finer, more fragile, much more breakable. They would have won a wrestling contest with us easily.
So why did they, around 40000 to 35000 years ago, become extinct?
Image from wpclipart.com
Here’s your chance to plumb the depths of this mystery and go back to the time before Homo sapiens were the only human beings on the planet. Have a look at each link below to view some fascinating speculations about Neanderthals:
Of course, many of these ideas are theory or speculation rather than fact.
After you have read and discussed these sites, write a comment about the Neanderthals. It must be written in correct English. What do you find interesting about them? What information have you gleaned from your reading? What are the factors that might have made the Neanderthals vulnerable to extinction?
During the Renaissance, artists were fascinated by people, beauty, anatomy and nature. They created art with quite a new focus: portraits of wealthy people (often clutching books to show their intelligence and education), detailed prints and paintings of plants, animals and landscapes; paintings of buildings with careful attention to the rules of perspective; and even pictures of children playing games. Later, some artists began to show an interest in peasants’ lives, not just the lives of the wealthy.
It was a time when creativity flourished. In any historical period, however, alongside those who embrace change are those who fear its effects on their belief systems and way of life. The Catholic Church, for example, was deeply suspicious of many Renaissance ideas, did not allow dissection and accused scientists of heresy. For this reason, Copernicus did not publish his theory about a sun-centred universe until late in his life. Galileo was accused of heresy and placed under house arrest for the last few years of his life.
All in all, it was an interesting and dangerous time. Like now!
Have you ever heard the expression: “Words can’t describe how I feel”? That phrase always strikes me as lazy, because I can’t help thinking: “Describing is exactly what words are for. Don’t just give up, reach into your lexicon and find the words you need!”
I cannot imagine that you would not be so easily defeated by a concept that is difficult to explain. You can dream up strings of synonyms in a few moments and turn them into precise and memorable prose (or even a poem, as Harry showed us last week).
All the same, with the advent of the internet and all the tools and resources that it provides, it is actually relatively easy to describe ideas and experiences, not just with words, but also with a range of graphics, pictures, symbols and numbers. Of course, that was always possible, but now this kind of description has become a kind of digital art form. It is called an infographic.
Designing an infographic requires research, planning and creativity. You need some interesting fonts or lettering, a clear heading and several subheadings, clever and evocative symbols or pictures, information in words and figures, and a dash of flair.
Your task, after some internet roaming, is ultimately to create an infographic to summarise the life, customs, skills and idiosyncrasies of the Samurai. The links I have provided below are fairly straightforward and, I hope, informative and interesting.
Before you begin with your historical reading, contemplate how you can best design your infographic by admiring the clever examples that I have found over the past few months. You will find links to them below.
In this way you can further develop your skills in summarising material as well as extend your knowledge. You may work in twos or threes for this task.
As a historian and discerning writer, you need to choose precise words.
Here are some imprecise words that one hears every day: “awesome”, “amazing”, “extraordinary”, “wonderful”, “good”, “marvellous”, “terrible”, “bad” – and so on. In speech, such words are easy to use, even though they sometimes fail to convey exact meanings. I’m not saying that you should never use them. Just be sparing with them.
In writing, some of the words below might allow you to express finer shades of meaning and capture the nuances of human experience. That’s what words are for. Choosing an exact word or phrase is a deliberate mental act that will allow you to express yourself with conviction and even formulate ideas in a more rigorous way. Weigh your words as you choose them. In this way you will become a memorable writer, not a pedestrian one.
Positive words for describing the life and legacy of people in history – for describing admirable actions and characteristics
Negative words for describing the life and legacy of people in history – for describing people or actions that you deplore or condemn
For those of you who were present to watch the BBC documentary, “Blood of the Vikings”, you may recall hearing Charlemagne’s name. The commentators mentioned that his military campaigns and slaughters of so-called pagans were possible factors in the Vikings’ increasingly violent raids, which began in the late eighth century. At just that time, Charlemagne was establishing what came to be known as the “Holy Roman Empire”. “Establishing” is such a clean, neat word, but in reality Charlemagne conducted many military campaigns that were far from gentle, orderly and merciful; his “establishment” of his empire entailed a great deal of force and bloodshed. In a sense, the word “establishment” here is rather euphemistic, just like the phrase “surgical bombing” as it was employed during the Iraq War.
While many accounts of Charlemagne present him in a glowing light as the father and founder of European culture, some historians view him as a brutal warlord. Which of these extremes is most clearly supported by the evidence? Can one argue that he somehow combined some elements of both extremes? Which view would you support more?
In reality, of course, all historical characters are likely to have positive and negative sides, although the preponderance of violent, murderous dictators in the twentieth century sometimes makes it difficult to maintain one’s faith in human character…
Your task is to decide what kind of man Charlemagne was and describe him in all his complexity and contradictions.
Charlemagne set up a significant and powerful empire and was influential in the development of Europe.
Even though Charlemagne is remembered for his contributions to law, justice and education, he sometimes took harsh measures against those who resisted his power. For instance, he forced people to be baptised as Christians and executed thousands of Saxon prisoners in one day.
So on the one hand, Charlemagne encouraged learning and admired scholars. On the other, he was prepared to act viciously to strengthen and consolidate his power.
As you may recall from our last few classes, teasing out the interwoven causes, variables and factors that contributedto an important historical event is a tricky business. There is rarely a single cause that leads inexorably to a single effect. The fall of the western part of the ancient Roman Empire is a case in point. Many factors contributed to the Roman Empire’s gradual decline and final collapse; indeed, the event was so complex that Edward Gibbon, the famous historian, wrote six long volumes on the topic. Rome’s collapse, furthermore, was to have a profound impact on the development of medieval Europe.
I do not expect anything as exhaustive as Gibbon’s masterpiece from you, but a detailed page of notes on the possible factors involved in Rome’s decline and the effects of its fall would be more than acceptable to me.
Use the links below to create a concept map of the factors that contributed to this crucial event and its effects on the world of medieval Europe. You may choose to employ my graphic as a starting point or instead use your own note-taking style.
Questions to ask yourselves as you read:
a Gibbon thought we should ask why the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did, rather than why it fell. This is a whole new way of considering the issue. What do you think?
b What were the possible benefits of Rome’s fall? Is it accurate to assert that its fall ushered in the so-called “Dark Ages”?
c To what extent did the splitting of the Empire into western and eastern parts weaken the west and contribute to its gradual decline?
“The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness…” – Edward Gibbon, writer of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Black Death would take a heavy toll on any society that lacked modern medicines, hygienic living conditions and well-stocked hospitals. For instance, only 22 years ago, 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 took their own antibiotics with them – a wise move! You can read a New York Times report about this outbreak here.
In 1900, 303 people in Sydney caught the bubonic plague and 103 died. Although modern antibiotics were not available in 1900, scientists knew by then how the disease was spread. This allowed the authorities to take appropriate measures to combat the disaster, such as appointing rat-catchers and fumigating the slum dwellings in the Rocks. A bounty was placed on rats – sixpence per rat according to one Melbourne report. Poor and unemployed men became professional rat catchers. You can see pictures of the crisis in Sydney below.
The situation in medieval Europe when the plague struck was exacerbated by ignorance, superstition, atrocious living conditions and poor medical practice. At the time, no one knew the cause of the disease or suspected the existence of bacteria. Many falsely assumed that the disease was caused by the movements of heavenly bodies or infected air. There was also a pervasive belief that the plague was God’s punishment for sin. The reactions of most people were characterised by superstition and panic, as well as a lack of systematic observation and evidence-based medical practice. Finally, the unhygienic living conditions provided the ideal environment for rats, fleas and indeed infections of all kinds.
I hope you find this topic as gruesome, heart-rending and captivating as I have always found it.
– Ms Green
The Black Death in Sydney and Melbourne, 1900
Here is a picture of the rat-catchers at work:
Copyright:State of NSW. Kindly provided by the State Records Authority of NSW. That pile in the middle is dead rats.
♦Marvellous Melbourne (or Smellbourne as one wag of the period called it) also suffered from a case of the disease; read about a case in Camberwell at the link below: LINK: Plague in Camberwell
The Black Death in Medieval Europe
One-third of the people of Europe died from this disease – and that is only counting the first time it struck. In 1348 the population had no immunity at all. In the same way, the native populations of South America and Australia had no immunity to smallpox, which helps to explain why smallpox wiped out a substantial percentage of these populations. The plague returned at regular intervals over the next 350 years in Europe. It was always devastating, but it did not kill as many people as in 1348 and 1349.
The situation in medieval Europe made people particularly vulnerable to such a disease:
Sanitation: General hygiene was very poor. People didn’t know about bacteria and as they walked along streets they had to step over faeces. The cities stank. Rats had plenty to feed on thanks to the butchers working in public and leaving piles of offal on the streets. Fleas were also commonplace. Peasants expected to have fleas.
Widespread Poverty:There was a great deal of poverty, malnutrition and poor health in a large percentage of the population. The Black Death therefore struck an already weakened population.The rate of mortality in untreated cases is reportedly around 40–60%. Presumably a healthy, well-fed person would have a better chance of surviving than a poor, malnourished peasant – and Europe’s population was largely made up of poor, malnourished peasants.
The medieval life expectancy
According to a book from our school library, “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith, some historians believe, based on evidence from digs in Ireland, that the average lifespan in the Middle Ages could have been about 25 years. This evidence suggests that over half the women were dead by the age of 35 and one-third of the population had died before the age of 14. Of course, this may not be true of Europe as a whole but it gives an insight into medieval life (and death).
♦To read about the mortality rate of the plague, go to the link below. You should be aware that just to complicate matters there were three kinds of plague, and the prognosis (likely medical outcome) for each was different.
Medical Knowledge in Christian Europe:Medical knowledge, at least amongst Christians, was almost non-existent. While Islamic physicians were quite scientific in their methods, Christian doctors were ignorant of anatomy and did not use a scientific method in their treatments. The Roman Church was partly to blame. It controlled what doctors learned and it prohibited the dissection of bodies. This meant that in one French medical school, for instance, there was only one practical anatomy lesson in two years. An abdomen was opened and inspected; that was all. The prescriptions of doctors at the time of the plague were dangerous rather than therapeutic.
The Church:Another problem was that the Church viewed disease as a punishment for sin. Some people believed that leprosy could be brought on by too much lust. In such an environment, careful scientific examination and rigorous observation of symptoms would be uncommon.
Ignorance and Superstition:If doctors were ignorant, then the rest of the population, mostly illiterate, was even more so. Wild rumours and prejudices rapidly took hold. This meant that instead of doing useful things like quarantining people, cleaning up filthy areas and burning plague-infested areas – all measures taken by the Sydney administration in 1900 – medieval people often reacted by blaming the innocent.
From Wikipedia Commons, originally from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906, and now in the Public Domain; picture titled, “French Jews of the Middle Ages”
Persecution of Jewish People: The Jews were one group who were accused of poisoning wells and infecting people with plague.
Historians have suggested this might have been connected with the fact that fewer Jews died from the plague. The Jewish holy book (Torah) gives advice on basic hygiene to stop the spread of diseases. This meant many Jews refused to use the unhygienic wells (located near the town sewage pit), choosing instead to drink from fresh water sources.
This may have caused superstitious and ignorant people to blame the Jews for the plague. Consequently Jews were massacred, tortured and even burned alive. It was horrific. Some writers believe it was the worst persecution of the Jews before the 20th century, when the Nazis, with all the technology of the modern world behind them, committed atrocities against the Jewish population of Europe.
A massacre of a specific minority is sometimes called a pogrom.
Picture in Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons. Check the buboes. The man in the background may be holding a bunch of herbs, which were erroneously believed to help ward off disease by filling the air or at least the person’s breathing space with healthy odours.
“Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob…” – Jeuan Gethin (died 1349) – quoted in “The Death” by Amanda Braxton-Smith.
Medieval Recommendations for the Plague
People should seclude themselves from others and stay away from the infected air.
People should burn scented woods to purify the bad air and fill their homes with pleasant-smelling plants and flowers.
Try to remain tranquil.
Open and cauterize the buboes (burn them with a hot iron or caustic agent) and apply some substance to draw out the poison. One recipe for such a substance was a plaster made from gum resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement.
Take soothing potions. One recipe for a potion was: take an ounce (28 grams) of gold, 11 ounces of quicksilver, dissolve and let the quicksilver escape; add 47 ounces of water and drink. Fortunately few people would have had the wealth or resources to make such a potion.
Some doctors suggested people should bathe in urine. Others warned against bathing as it would open the pores to let in the disease.
Some people thought the plague could be avoided by sniffing bad smells such as latrines (a hole in the ground used as a toilet). Following the theory that the two bad smells worked against each another, some people put dead animals in their houses.