Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library,
University of Rochester, presents
Library Resources on Medieval Topics
University of Rochester
The Great Mortality of 1347 was not the first case of bubonic plague to affect Europe, but it was one of the worst and most extensive. The Plague of 1347 was thought to have arrived in Europe through the Italian port of Messina, Sicily, and was unwittingly brought by Genoese merchant ships traveling west. Already illness had been devastating northern Asia and Eurasia, in particular affecting the Mongolian Empire which never recovered from the loss. By the time the bubonic plague reached Sicily rumors of death in the East were already in the air.
The years between 1347 and 1353 saw up to one third of the population of Europe wiped out. In some cases entire towns were depopulated, and many who were able abandoned their homes, villages, and cities in hopes of finding sanctuary elsewhere. Others cloistered themselves away and, not knowing the cause of the illness, did what they could to avoid everyone and everything. But the plague was insidious and spread with alarming rapidity; precious few areas west of Moscow were spared. Those who survived were obliged to watch helplessly as friends and family died around them. Every day dozens and even hundreds of bodies joined the mounting tolls until death and illness became almost a commonplace and mass graves and pyres a painful necessity. Doctors and priests often fled from those who sought their aid for fear of becoming ill themselves, and only the very brave or misinformed remained to help those in need. Many accounts even speak of family, parents and children, husbands and wives, abandoning one another and fleeing their homes.
Medical knowledge was not at all up to the challenge of dealing with most illnesses and certainly not one as virulent and contagious as the bubonic plague. Indeed, they could have no idea what a bacillus was or how it might be transmitted, let alone understand how to stop or slow its spread. So while many attempts to treat the illness were made using fourteenth-century knowledge, none was effective and the plague was free to run its course.
While research is still being done to help explain why this particular outbreak became such a cataclysmic pandemic, we do know a fair amount about the illness already. The plague bacillus, yersina pestis, lives in the blood stream of small rodents, usually passed on and spread by the fleas that feed on them. The plague attacks the lymphatic system, causing swelling in the lymph nodes which turn into firm red and black boils or “buboes” in the groin, armpits and neck. These are the most common visual side effects of the bubonic plague. Pneumonic plague, which also attacks the lungs and causes the victim to cough up blood, is more infectious, as it is air-born, and has a mortality rate of almost 100%. The rarest form is Septicemic plague, where the bacillus infects the blood stream directly, killing the victims before they even have a chance to show signs of illness.
Research into this subject is ongoing and at times contentious. Even when research is at its most rigorous, attempting to piece together the nature of such a complicated and distant piece of history can be a little like a game of blind-man’s bluff. So while these resources are offered up as some of the best for our purposes here, few to none of them are completely unproblematic. It may be difficult for a historian to understand fully the biological elements involved when discussing a bacillus. Inversely, it is just as easy for a biologist to misunderstand the material culture and socio-political history which might affect how a disease is spread. It is also important to remember that this list focuses on the history of the European outbreak, and is not balanced in its coverage of this historical moment as a pan-Eurasian incident.
Critical Sources for Teachers and High-school Students
The following selections are categorized as sources for instructors and mature students as they are generally of a more dense and critical nature and do not necessarily make themselves accessible or engaging to a younger audience. However, there may be selections or elements which would be useful to many middle-school students.
Aberth, John, ed. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2005.
This work is a fascinating and carefully arranged collection of primary source documents as well as a comprehensive introduction to the Black Death. It is arranged into various sections which cover the origin and spread of the illness, as well as social, artistic, and medical responses and impacts. This particular work also provides Muslim and Byzantine sources and offers a wide variety of perspectives on the plague and its consequences. The summaries provided at the head of each section and its overall brevity make it a useful classroom text. The volume also includes illustrations, a chronology of the Black Death, and questions to consider which both students and teachers may find helpful while exploring the subject.
Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death: 1346-1353. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
Benedictow’s work on the Black Death seems primarily interested in the Black Death as a disease rather than a cultural or social event. It summarizes a vast body of secondary research dealing with almost (but not quite) every region affected with the plague in the European continent and is organized specifically by region. The primary focus is on demographic studies, epidemiology, transmission and mortality rates. This is an in-depth study, appropriate as a source of background information for intrepid teachers interested in getting a full and complete understanding of the bubonic plague as an illness during the Middle Ages, or for students working on advanced research projects or who have a particular interest in the biological aspects of the Black Death. However, while interesting and thorough, it is probably too dense and detailed to be of use as a core classroom text.
Byrne, Joseph P. Daily Life During The Black Death. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Bryne’s work covers context and common medical practice, as well as material from later outbreaks. Bryne makes use of well-known secondary sources, contemporary accounts, and illustrations to give his reader a broad overview of the effects of the bubonic plague on pre-modern Europe. The organization and scope of the work focuses on aspects of life and culture rather than on a specific period of time or geographical location, and seems to focus more on the aftermath of the plague rather than its onset. Some of Bryne’s assertions are slightly tendentious, such as his apparent confusion of religious organizations, but overall he makes a solid summary of the civic problems and policies created as Europe dealt with numerous and varying outbreaks. The work also includes a section on the plague in the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world which would be helpful to those looking to explore the effects of the plague outside of Europe.
Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. New York: Free Press, 2001.
This is an accessible and easy to read work, but the tone is casual in a way that may be too colloquial for some. However, its tone might be preferred by others as it makes the book more engaging. It has been described as a “breezy, off the cuff lecture” by reviewers. Cantor provides a popular account of the plague in three major sections which highlight biomedical, contemporary, and historical perspectives. There are a few minor issues with this slightly older text. These include occasional inaccuracies and sometimes contentious assertions about the biological context of the illness and its spread. However, the core information is certainly solid, if not optimally organized.
Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Ed.and intro. Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
This book is direct, to the point, and clearly organized. It would make an excellent text around which to organize a unit on the Black Death. It is divided into three sections: “Bubonic Plague,” which describes and outlines historical concerns about the true nature of the outbreak, “The New Economic and Demographic system,” which discuss the effect that the plague had on these areas of medieval life, and “Modes of Thought and Feeling,” which addresses the psychological effects. Overall this is a nice, brief text that covers the basic historical events surrounding the outbreak of the plague while also providing scholarly end-notes for further study. In this work Herlihy also draws a comparison between the reactions of homophobia and anti-semitism making this piece useful for those instructors who wish to compare the outbreak of the plague with the Aids virus.
Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Horrox’s The Black Death is a thorough and fascinating resource and a top recommendation for anyone interested in, or teaching, the subject of the Black Death. This outstanding collection of diverse primary documents provides material from across all of Europe and makes use of everything from works of fiction and private letters to the records of public office. What’s more, the material is helpfully arranged into thematic groupings that allow instructors and students to find the specific material of relevance to their interests. These groupings can also provide ready-made modules and discussion topics for educators. While this work is rigorously academic in its purview, and therefore best suited to older students, there are certainly selections which could be useful to younger students as well, as many of the firsthand accounts would be engaging for almost any audience.
Kelly, John. The Great Mortality. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Using fairly recent scholarship as well as first-hand accounts, this work describes the initial outbreak and progress of the Plague aboard the Genoese ships, and outlines the panic and resulting emergence of extreme movements such as the Flagellants and widespread anti-semitism. The work provides an excellent overview, and is highly engrossing, though it is organized as a linear narrative rather than in thematic or geographical units, making it more difficult to use as a classroom text. It would be considered by most to be a good read, especially appealing to an informal audience. However, the science is not always perfectly accurate and in some instances the narrative elements take over the core content. An excellent popular history, and useful in its accessibility for students, this book should be used cautiously and selectively by educators.
Martin, Sean. The Black Death. North Pomfret, V.T.: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2001.
This is a small, easily digested text which would be well suited to the uninitiated student and/or teacher. It uses a clear and concise approach and does a respectable job of summarizing the outbreak, contemporary responses, and the resulting social effects of the Black Death. The information is arranged by both geographical location and thematic subject matter in a manner quite similar to Rosemary Horrox’s collection of primary texts. While they are imperfectly synchronized, some might find it convenient to use these two resources in tandem, mixing the primary and secondary sources.
Naphy, William and Andrew Spicer Stroud. The Black Death: A History of Plagues 1345-1730. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000.
This work provides a catalog of plague outbreaks beginning with the Great Mortality of the fourteenth century and ending in the middle of the eighteenth century. It also provides a number of illustrations which add interest, context, and texture. Each subsection covers a different period and outbreak, and each is fairly condensed, offering core information and details without going into depth about specific examples or engaging with primary texts. In all they are accurate and clearly written summaries that convey the necessary information and address sometimes overlooked realities about how epidemics were perceived. It would be especially useful if one wished to make a broader study of the bubonic plague as a historical recurrence or wished to compare different outbreaks. This is an excellent work, but is academic in tone and may be more appropriate for older students. It also provides an extensive bibliography.
Texts for Middle-school Students
Elliot, Lynne. Medieval World Series: Medieval Medicine and the Plague. New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 2005.
This heavily illustrated course text provides time-lines, maps and numerous medieval images in order to engage younger students. The work is clear and generally accurate. The information provided is very simple and straightforward and does not go into specific details and examples, but it does provide a clear overview of the core facts surrounding the spread of illness. This text is particularly appropriate for any instructor who wishes to focus on the aspects of the plague dealing with medieval medical practices. Chapter headings include: “Medieval Medicine,” “Medieval Diseases,” “The Black Death,” “Plague Horrors,” “Medical Beliefs,” “Home Remedies,” “The Apothecary,” “Doctors,” etc. Appropriate for elementary and early middle-school students.
Giblin, James Cross. When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
This particular work is valuable in that it draws clear parallels between the Black Death, Smallpox, and Aids, and does so in a way that is both striking and fascinating. Issues of fear, blame, and the resulting social and personal violence are examined in a thoughtful, compelling manner conducive to critical discussion. In each case, the author follows the medical community’s reactions to these diseases with blunt matter-of-factness, while offering clarification for the medical and biological terms used. This text is suitable for middle-school students though it could also be utilized in upper-division courses as well.
Macdonald, Fiona. World Almanac Library of the Middle Ages: The Plague and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Milwaukee: White-Thompson, 2006.
This is an excellent textbook, which provides accurate, detailed and clear information on the causes and results of the Black Death in Europe. This text provides numerous fascinating and relevant images, informative charts and maps, as well as additional quotations from scholarly and primary sources. It also provides historical and social context, though it focuses primarily on issues surrounding contemporary responses to the plague, be they medical, spiritual, or socio-political. Chapters include: “Living and Dying,” “Plagues and Epidemics,” “Body and Soul,” “Faith and Healing,” “Medical Professions,” etc. This book is recommended for both middle school and possibly early high school, as it is both accessible and rich in detail.
Slavicek, Louise Chipley. Great Historic Disasters: Black Death. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008.
This work uses a fairly standard textbook format. Its clear and concise language and straightforward organization make it accessible to younger students. The text explains in detail what the Black Death was, how it spread, and what the consequences were. The detailed maps and illustrations provided are useful both as visual aids and as a method of engaging student interest. Chapter sections include: “Medicine,” “Spread,” “Social Impact,” “Economic Impact,” “Religion and Culture,” etc. Useful as a course textbook.
Works of Literature
Boccaccio, Giovanni. “Prologue and First Book.” The Decameron. Trans. John Payne. Annot. Charles S. Singleton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
The Decameron is one of the few literary works of the medieval period which provide us with a specific reference to, and description of, the Black Death of the mid 1300’s. In its entirety the work is quite long, with each of its ten books containing as many individual tales. The matter relating directly and specifically to the plague, however, can be found in the Prologue and the first portion of Book One where we are given a description not only of the physical effects of the illness, but also the varying responses of the citizens of Florence. The work then introduces us to ten young people who decide to flee the city and to retire to the country, an act which provides the framing narrative for the remaining books. This work is useful both as a primary source document and first-person testimony of the effects of the plague and as a means of exploring the emotional, psychological, and social reactions to the sudden and unstoppable mortality.
Brooks, Geraldine. Years of Wonders. New York : Penguin, 2002.
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders describes the seventeenth-century plague in London, England. The illness is carried to a small Derbyshire village, and as villagers begin to die, the survivors must choose to leave their village in hopes of outrunning the plague or staying and risking catching the plague themselves. This novel explores people’s attempts to maintain their humanity in the face of death and grief. As a historical novel this work is occasionally anachronistic and inaccurate, but it is compelling and useful as a general portrait of the period and of average people struggling with overwhelming circumstances. This book is recommended for high-school students.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Trans. David Wright. Intro. Christopher Cannon. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2011.
While this particular work does not refer to the Great Mortality specifically, as almost no literary texts of the period do, it does draw attention to the very popular Memento Mori trope and the notion of the imminent and ever-present nature of death. This would be useful to use in conjunction with the Dance of Death as a popular artistic theme. This tale is most appropriate for high school students, though it may be accessible to middle school students as well according to instructor discretion. In both cases a modernized version is a likely necessity.
Dahme, Joanne. The Plague. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2009.
This novel is a dark, historical fiction about a plague-orphaned, fifteen-year old girl named Nell, who closely resembles Princess Joan, the daughter of King Edward III of England. When the princess dies of the plague Nell is asked to substitute for her. Nell flees with the help of friends and must face the consequences of the plague where-ever she turns. Dahme addresses the emotional and psychological strain caused by widespread epidemic and tragedy. Well written and engaging, though there are occasional anachronisms. Recommended for grades 6-10.
Decker, Tim. Run Far, Run Fast. Honesdale, P.A.: Front Street, 2007.
This is a charming book which walks the line between graphic novel and picture book, making it accessible for a broad age range. The book tells the tale of a young girl forced to leave her home in order to escape the onset of the Black Death. The story is told in snippets of text and an almost abstract collage of images which collectively paint a picture of the time, place, and dark circumstances in which the main character finds herself. A singular piece, its simplicity and reliance on images allows much younger students access to it in a basic way, while its subtle sophistication can add to its value for older, and more advanced, students.
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Ed. Paula R. Backscheider. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.
While this work provides a first person narrative about a much later outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665, and is based not on the author’s experiences but on compiled interviews with survivors, it nevertheless provides an informative look at the social and political responses of a populous city faced with the outbreak of a deadly plague. This particular edition also provides a very useful collection of excerpts from historical, critical, and fictional documents which help contextualize the plague of 1665 as well as illness and plague in general. This work is rather long for classroom use, but can be very useful if presented in selections to the students. The language of the period may make this work difficult for younger students and therefore it is recommended for high-school use.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Masque of the Red Death. Poe Museum. Last modified Tuesday, August 30, 2011. <http://www.poemuseum.org/works-masque.php>
The story is that of a wealthy elite who have separated themselves from the rest of society in order to avoid the “Red Death,” a plague which has ravaged the country. As this is Poe, the work is one of fictional horror and therefore focuses on the most frightening aspect of plague: the inescapable nature of death. However, it also works well in conjunction with pieces such as the Decameron as it uses similar themes of isolation and escapism as one of the psychological and social responses to the plague. This short work is suitable for a readership with varying levels of ability, and the element of horror is not so graphic or violent as to be questionable. However, due to some elevated language, this piece is best suited to high-school students.
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book. New York : Bantam Paperback, 1993.
An award-winning novel which explores the history of two epidemics raging at two different times in a way which allows the reader to examine the modern relevance of past epidemics. This science fiction novel addresses this relevancy by positing the primary character as a time traveler sent back to study a pandemic from centuries before. At the same time another plague is claiming lives in her own period. This is a well-written and fascinating book, and a unique way to explore the subject of the Black Death, but at six hundred pages, it is quite long for in class study. Recommended for older students.
Ibeji, Mike. British History : Middle Ages : Black Death. BBC History. Last modified Thursday, March 10, 2011. <www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_01.shtml>
This site from BBC History is a useful resource for examining the spread of the plague. The site is easy to navigate and the search capability makes information easy to retrieve, though the page itself is short and provides only limited historical details relating to the initial spread of the plague in the British Isles. Other pages under the sub-heading “Middle Ages” will be useful sources for contextualizing the historical period and can provide further details for study. The sources used are provided on the site and are verifiable. This page appears to be credible and unbiased, though there is some commercial advertising. The BBC site also provides access to useful history exercises and games for younger students, though none is currently specific to the Black Death.
Edwards, Molly. How Stuff Work : How the Black Death Worked. Discovery Communications. Last Modified Tuesday August 30, 2011. <history.howstuffworks.com/middle-ages/black-death.htm>
The How Stuff Works site is an excellent resource for finding information on a broad range of subjects. The information provided on the Black Death in Europe is extensive and readily accessible, and the site is easy to navigate using the provided search capabilities. The site’s information is credible and can be easily verified using the list of sources provided. The site is organized, professional, and unbiased though there is a fair amount of commercial advertising. The website also provides useful links on related fields, such as plague, virus, and European History, and the images which accompany the material are interesting and engaging which make it an excellent tool for compelling student research.
Dunham, Will. Black Death Discriminated between Victims. ABC Science. Last modified Tuesday, August 30, 2011. <www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/01/29/2149185.htm>
This Black Death entry (Black Death discriminated between victims) from ABC Science is brief, but certainly worth the time for review as it contains compelling evidence for the notion that the Black Death struck those individuals already in poor health in greater proportion to those in good health. This page also offers links to external sites for further research and requires no navigation except to said external sites. The sources of information are well identified and information on the author’s credibility requires no additional research. This site is clear and professional and there is no discernible bias or alternative agenda associated with this site and little commercial advertising.
The Black Death: Bubonic Plague. The Middle Ages.Net. Last Modified Saturday, February 13, 2010. <www.themiddleages.net/plague.html>
This Middle Ages.Net is informative and well organized website. It provides extensive information as well as links to other excellent and equally engaging sites. These include: EyeWitness to History, Public Health in Renaissance Europe, and Inspecta World. These sites vary in ease of navigation and in verifiability of sources, but they do contain interesting and useful information and visuals. The Middle Ages.Net is fairly easy to navigate but may not always return one to the original point of origin after exploring the links. The site’s information is credible and its accuracy can be easily verified using the list of sources provided. There is commercial advertising but overall the site appears to be unbiased. Because of its excellent links, many of which provide further information on parallel subjects, this site seems especially well suited to student research projects.
The Path of the Black Death. National Endowment for the Humanities. Last modified Monday, August 29, 2011. <http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/path-black-death>
This site is especially useful to educators as it provides lesson plans for grades 9-12 as well as pdf worksheets and maps. It is easy to navigate, but it does have some commercial advertisements and lacks the credibility of more content-based websites. The information provided is not as extensive as one might find on other sites, but it does include a variety of useful links under the heading: “Extending the Lesson.” These include full-text documents, lectures, and alternate websites suitable for both teachers and students.
Knox, E.L. Skip. History of Western Civilization: The Middle Ages: The Black Death. Boise State University. Last modified Tuesday, August 30, 2011. <history.boisestate.edu/westciv/plague>
This site from Boise State contains extensive information about the Black Death in Europe, its origin, spread, and its effects on the European population. This site is easy to navigate and very direct, but the sources of information for each topic are not well identified. However, the site seems unbiased and there is no commercial advertising. The content is provided in short, clear, easily digested pieces which younger students may find more manageable.
Film and Television
The Plague. The History Channel. Gardener Films. 2005. Rated NR.
This documentary is a surprisingly thorough overview of all the major, pertinent issues revolving around the Black Death in the Middle Ages. It would make an excellent visual component to use in conjunction with selected primary readings such as those found in Rosemary Horrox’s or John Aberth’s works in order to add greater depth to the events depicted in the televised documentary. This piece provides an engaging way to introduce the subject to students. However, there are several portions which may be too visceral or graphic for younger students, such as depictions of flagellants. Therefore, it is more appropriate for high school students. It could also be useful to middle school students as well if used in excerpts selected by the instructor. (Further information can be found at this website: <http://www.history.co.uk/shows/the-plague/season-1/abut.html#bottomOfHeader>.)
Secrets of the Dead: Mystery of the Black Death. Performed by Liev Schreiber, Fawzi Gballah, et. al. PBS. 2002. Rated NR.
This documentary provides a brief overview of the Black Death in Europe but focuses on the biological after-effects of the plague on the European population. Of particular interest is the investigation into genetic mutations led by Stephen O’Brien of the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C.. His research reveals an interesting genetic correlation between survivors of HIV and descendants of plague survivors. This is more a special interest piece than an in-depth exploration of the history and issues surrounding the Black Death. This work could be useful in whole or in part to both middle-school and high-school instructors. (Further information and teaching resources can be found at this website: <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/case_plague/index.html>.)
The Seventh Seal. (Det sjunde inseglet) Performed by Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Bengt Ekerot. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Rated NR. Subtitled.
“The Seventh Seal,” by director Ingmar Bergman, is considered a masterpiece of film. Set during the outbreak of the plague in Sweden, it tells of a pious knight who returns from the Crusades to find himself literally and figuratively face to face with death. The knight challenges Death to a chess game to play for time, during which he collects an unusual group of followers and is forced to confront several existential questions. The film is more notable for metaphorical beauty than historical accuracy concerning either the Bubonic plague or medieval Europe, but it is certainly realistic and accurate enough to convey a powerful sense of time and place. More importantly, it is an elegant depiction of the human struggle to make sense of confusing and difficult times. Due to its artistic nature and its use of metaphor this film is sometimes difficult for viewers and is therefore best suited to older students. Even in this case a good deal of explanation may be necessary on the part of the instructor. If presented correctly, this film can be highly engaging and well worth the additional effort.
The Host. Performed by Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, and Hae-il Park. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. 2007. Rated R. Subtitled.
This unusual film is part comedy, part thriller, part family drama, and part classic Korean monster movie. While this would not typically be something one might recommend for educational purposes, it is potentially a unique and entertaining way to approach the idea of government and civic response to the fear of viral outbreak. The film provides a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the response to widespread panic which includes a government reaction complete with anti-bioterrorism units, decontamination efforts and mass quarantine. The movie also makes references to the real-life SARS outbreaks. This film does contain moments of violence and questionable humor and it is advised that educators consider the film carefully before deciding if it will be appropriate for their classrooms. This film is only recommended for older students and should be used with caution.
I Am Legend. Performed by Will Smith and Salli Richardson. Dir. Francis Lawrence. 2007. Rated PG13.
In this film New York City becomes a seemingly abandoned wasteland when a re-engineered virus meant to cure cancer goes wrong. Only those naturally immune to the virus survive unscathed, while other survivors become terribly mutated “Darkseekers” who resemble animalistic vampires. The film is based on a science fiction novel of the same name from 1954, and like the original novel by Richard Matheson, the film follows the virologist main character conducting experiments to try to find a cure or vaccine. The film uses flashbacks to depict the panic behind an attempted quarantine of Manhattan and like its source, it attempts to acknowledge issues of isolation and the crisis of identity. This is particularly evident in the much more powerful and challenging original ending which can be found in the added features of the DVD. While many aspects may not seem directly relevant, this film, like a number of “zombie flicks,” does bring up important related issues such as: response to epidemic, survivor guilt, and the position of the ill as social and biological other. Unlike other zombie movies this film is significantly less frightening and graphic, though still recommended for use with older students.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Performed by Bruce Lyones, Chris Haywood and Hamish McFarlane. Dir. Vincent Ward. 1988. Rated PG.
This Australian-New Zealand co-production is an unusual fantasy/adventure film set during the Black Death in fourteenth-century England. In it a group of people from a remote Cumbrian village follow a boy’s visions in order to attempt to stave off the spreading plague. Through a time-travel twist, their efforts bring them into the modern world. The film was well received and nominated for a number of film awards, but the strange turns in the narrative are sometimes unnerving to viewers. The director has claimed that the time travel is meant to bridge the historical gap between the fear of plague experienced by the people of the fourteenth century and the more contemporary concern about HIV and AIDS. To that end, instructors interested in pursuing this line of discussion may find this film useful as a jumping off point.
And the Band Played On. Performed by Matthew Modine and Alan Alda. Dir. Roger Spottiswoode. 1993. Rated PG-13.
The early years of the AIDS epidemic are recounted by journalist Randy Shilts in his book And the Band Played On. This HBO movie adaptation follows the real story of epidemiologists investigating several mysterious deaths in major urban gay communities in the 1980’s. The film attributes the slow government response to the stigmatization of the gay community and to the debate in the scientific community over the exact nature of the illness and its origin. While this film may be too controversial for some, it can provide a modern analogy for the confusion and stigmatization which also accompanied the outbreak of the Black Death, and it provides a common thread for discussion on the nature of human response to catastrophic epidemics.
Dianne Evanochko is a doctoral student in the English Department at the University of Rochester.
Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom, Volume IX, Issue 1, Spring 2011 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Spring2011Plague.html
NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted. The original “look and feel” of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed. No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.