The Black Death and the World It Made

Martha Paas
Carleton College


The Black Death changed the world perhaps more than any other historical event. In this course we will consider the plague and how it changed the world. We examine the scientific, social, economic, literary, religious and political effects of this and later epidemics.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution

Course Context:

This course is a first-year seminar. Enrollment is capped at 18 to encourage significant student-faculty interactions. As a first-year seminar, the course is graded pass/fail and does not count toward any general education or major requirements.

Course Content:

This freshman seminar examines the Black Death and its aftermath using topics from historical epidemiology, historical demography, economic history, art history and religion. In the course students also read 2 novels and a play (which is performed this fall at the college) related to the themes of the course. There is a focus on data, its reliability and use in prediction.

This is a freshman seminar without prerequisites. It is designed to introduce freshman to the varied areas of inquiry which pertain to the subject and thereby enhance their appreciation and understanding of the liberal arts. It does not count toward the economics major.

Course Goals:

A freshman course such as this furthers student skills and thinking in several ways. First, it requires their examining a complex historical event where data are scarce and questionable in order to learn how to evaluate evidence. Secondly, it helps them recognize how outcomes of a catastrophic event can have profound effects on a society, even, as in the case of the Black Death,changing society forever. Thirdly, I want them to learn how a knowledge of the subject matter can help them in areas as diverse as interpreting literature and in the formation of public policy. The enhancement of discussion skills is fundamental to this course. The goals of the course as expressed on the syllabus are:

In this seminar we will undertake an interdisciplinary study of the Black Death from medical, historical, economic, artistic and religious perspectives. We will seek to draw parallels to other pandemics, both current and predicted, to see what insights our studies might provide for understanding their potential impact on civilization. We will also pay attention to data, "its reliability, its interpretation, and its use in prediction," in order to sharpen our quantitative reasoning skills. We will also consider the theme of the plague in literature, film and theatre.

Course Features:

The course uses discussion to engage the students actively in their understanding of the course material. Attention to detail, mastery of complex ideas and the ability to interpret the historical record is furthered by discussion. The emphasis on data and how it is used is the subject of a final project where students learn the predictions about the AIDs epidemic from the mid-90s and then research the actual outcomes in comparison. Interpreting the differences will require them to integrate the perspectives of the course

Course Philosophy:

As an economic historian, I am engaged in interdisciplinary research and teaching. Over the past 32 years of teaching I have come to believe that discussion is the most effective way for students to learn to engage the material and to truly understand it. There is a proverb which I believe expresses this philosophy best: " Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand."
There is a large amount of varied and interesting material in this course, so it lends itself to this format.


I will come to know the students well in a 15-person seminar, and will be able to monitor their progress as they enter into class discussion. The final project, which integrates the themes of the course, will show me how successful they have been. The course is graded on a Pass/No Credit basis, so students will not be concerned about grades. Instead, they can work on improving their skills.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 39kB Sep15 08)

Teaching Materials:

Assignment handout (Microsoft Word 42kB Sep15 08)

References and Notes: