Teaching Module

Children during the Black Death

Lesson Plan: Children and Childhood During the Black Death

by Susan Douglass

Time Estimated: two to three 45-minute classes


  1. Evaluate the reliability of various types of primary sources in regard to the effects of the Black Death on children and their families.
  2. Analyze and compare different types of available evidence on the physical and social affects of the Black Death.
  3. Develop possible explanations for the differences between contemporary (or near contemporary) narrative accounts of the Black Death and other types of evidence.
  4. Develop research questions that could lead beyond the current sources to suggest strategies for resolving the historical disputes raised by conflicting evidence.
  5. Gather the evidence presented in the documents and create a summary of the experience of the Black Death in visual or narrative form.


  • Paper, regular notebook or white paper for individual or paired work, butcher paper or poster board for group work.
  • Computer with Internet connection for viewing primary sources and accessing "Wordle."
  • Web links and settings to enable Wordle and/or TagCrowd; and a word processor for pasting the primary sources.
  • Documents from Teaching Module prepared as handouts.

Day One

After introducing the topic of the Back Death, ask students to describe in a few keywords what they know about this occurrence in world history. Note the responses on the board.

Then ask students how historians learned about the plague from available evidence.

Make a list of possible sources of evidence the students identify. One type of evidence that might be surprising to students is a map that documents how widespread bubonic plague is today. (See 1998 plague reporting map from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Explain that the class will examine several different types of historical evidence about the plague.

Divide the students into three groups, according to the three types of primary source textual accounts (the Decameron and the Personal Accounts from Italy; the Health Ordinance; and the Testaments).

Close Reading Activity
First, have each group (or individual students) read the sources. Then, use the free applets (Wordle or TagCrowd) to make Word Clouds from the following texts, simply by choosing "Create," pasting the formatted or unformatted text into a window and pushing "Go:"

The purpose of this exercise is to help students to see the pattern of language use in the sources. The word cloud will help students identify keywords in the original languages when they appear with equal emphasis in English (e.g., padre, abbandonava). The aim is to see what ideas and tone writers conveyed to their audience, as well as to gain a sense of the memory of the event in the writers’ minds. Students should not substitute the word cloud for a close reading of the text, but use it as an aid. Working on the three groups of sources, use the following questions as a guide for close reading:

  • What do the word clouds for the English and original Latin and Italian communicate about the effect of the plague on the society of the time? Identify keywords in both languages. Identify descriptive nouns and adjectives. Identify terms for people? Are they general or personal terms? What does this say about the plague as an event across society? [Ans. people are described entirely in terms of their relation to one another, not in terms of class, vocation, or name.] Then read the annotation to the source. How do Boccaccio and the chroniclers portray the effect of the plague on social relations? Imagine the scene they describe, multiplied across whole cities. Does Boccaccio indicate different reactions among different social classes? How does the Decameron excerpt contrast with the frame of the stories, that is, a group taking refuge outside the city? Noting that these are not eyewitness accounts, what role might memory play in the substance and tone of the accounts, and what role does literary or moral purpose play?
  • What does the word cloud indicate about official views of the plague's causes at the time? What words and their frequency in the ordinance indicate beliefs about the spread of the disease? What words are missing which might reflect medical knowledge today? [Ans: germs, fleas, blood] Then read the annotation to the source. Despite their lack of knowledge of germ theory and insect vectors, how did the measures targeted in the ordinance reflect practical observations about the spread of the disease? Is the frequency of attention to clothing, fabrics, and the absence of cleanliness entirely misplaced? Do you think that such an ordinance helped in any way? Was it enforceable?
  • What does the word cloud indicate about the tone of the texts and the events they record? Make a list of the most frequent nouns, verbs, and other words describing people (names, vocations, relationships). Does the text include descriptive adjectives? To what do they refer? Read the annotations to the sources. Imagine the scene and the setting in which these wills were drawn up [students may wish to create a tableau of the scene using drawn figures or themselves acting out the parts.] Was it a scene of panic? What persons were present, and what were their relationships to the patient? Who was absent from the scene, and why? What concerns did each person present have and how did they bring their concerns to bear in making the testament? [Ans: patients taking care of family wealth, care of children who survived, priests getting donations for the church, debtors being paid, family members receiving shares] How would the ravaging plague have altered the normal process of drawing up a will? Using the graph of wills made during the plague months, and taking into account the officials who had to be present at will-making, discuss the difficulties the Church and the city faced during the epidemic. How likely is it that many people died without wills, or without registered wills? What is unusual about leaving the family wealth to a small child, whether son or daughter?

NOTE: If at all possible, students should be encouraged to create word clouds individually or as a group, since the applet allows use of creative effects such as fonts, colors, and different word orientations that will inspire them to "see" the text in tone and substance. If desired, however, word clouds of these sources have been created and posted at:

Following the individual or group work with the three different types of primary sources, ask students to give their impression of the effect of the Black Death on the social order, based on their set of documentary sources. Student responses should fairly clearly differentiate among the sources as to the effects, but also indicate common elements. The starkest contrast will be the scenes of impersonal, general breakdown of the social order in Boccaccio and the chronicles, compared with the orderly scenes of making wills in the homes of the sick, with an array of people present, personalized references, their attempt to keep families and relationships intact. How can historians today account for the difference? What role might memory, and what role might literary style play? The ordinance portrays an official response based on incomplete knowledge, but shows that practical observation had some value in defining preventative measures. What questions does the contrast in the sources raise? [EXAMPLES: Were priests willing to enter homes of the sick? How did they avoid the disease, or did they? How could there have been enough officials to witness and record wills during and after the epidemic? Could that account for the decline in numbers of wills after July?]

Project the "Dance of the Dead" images or print them onto a 1-page handout. Read the annotations. Noting that these images are not directly related to the actual event of the Black Death, but existed as an art form before and after it, reflect on the following themes related to these popular images from the period. What messages do the images portray? What words can you recognize in the text accompanying the mural? Assuming generally high infant mortality even without epidemics, do you think people were emotionally attached to their children, knowing they might be carried away suddenly? How might mortality have differed among social classes? What indications of social class do the images portray? As public expressions of memory, what do they reflect in terms of attitudes toward death, and what moral lessons do they seem to project?

Assign the Document Based Question below as an in-class essay or homework assignment. Follow your usual procedure for drafts, critique, revision, and finalizing.

Extension Activity
Use the World History For Us All teaching unit "Coping with Catastrophe: The Black Death of the Fourteenth Century, 1330 - 1355 CE" to assess the causes and effects of the plague in other parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, and to see what historical source issues are raised by the materials in the lessons.


Advanced Students
Advanced students may be asked to search for additional documents and images on the Black Death, including fuller versions of the ones excerpted in the lesson. A few students might research the course of the disease to contribute knowledge about how long it took from exposure to the disease to death, and how frequent known outbreaks of plague were in the following centuries.

Less Advanced Students
Remedial students could be asked to focus merely on the documents in English, or on a limited selection of documents from each group. The document-based question can be modified to allow more time, to use fewer documents for their essay. They may also be asked to provide a culminating assessment in a form other than an essay, such as a visual, literary or narrative account that can be graded on how well it reflects use of evidence and comparison among the documents.

How to Cite This Source

Shona Kelly Wray, "Children during the Black Death," in Children and Youth in History, Item #167, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/167 (accessed April 20, 2014).