Honors | The Black Death (HIST)
H299 | 32319 | Ann Carmichael

To enroll in this class, please see HON-BQ 299 in the Schedule of

HIST-H 213 meets TuTh 2:30-3:45 p.m.
HON-H 299 meets Tu 4:00-4:50 p.m.
WH 101

The words “Black Death” refer to the catastrophic epidemic mortality
that affected most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East
during the years 1347 to 1350. But the course title follows the
practice of popular histories, journalists’ use and films, referring
to all bubonic plague epidemics as “the Black Death”. The biological
causes of recurrent plagues are hotly debated even now. But
because this course satisfies the “Culture Studies” requirement for
an IU degree, we will be primarily interested in cultural
expressions (such as art, literature, religion, ideas, customs),
rather than try to understand historical events with modern
scientific frameworks. We will also be concerned primarily with
western European experiences, and both lectures and readings will
focus on first-hand observations of plague. Because so few could
read and write, our sources provide the perspectives of privileged
people, who often have particular objectives to advance.
The first section of the course will focus on the history of
the “Black Death” pandemic (1347-1353), its ancient predecessor
(the “Justinianic plague”) and Europeans’ assumptions about the
importance of plague before “the big one.” Then we will examine
historical change between 1350 and the 1660s, when plagues recurred
every generation, in almost every region of Europe and the Middle
East. In these centuries of recurrent plague we will survey some
cultural changes in Europe that help us to understand changes in the
management of and reactions to plague. The management of plague
epidemics, particularly in the development of surveillance-oriented
public health and isolation of the infected, is one of these areas
of change; the role of religion and faith in plagues is another. How
plague was viewed in literature and art is a third important area of
change in the plague centuries. We will approach this section by
focus on the practices and experiences of isolation: quarantine,
pest houses, and spiritual isolation. Finally, in the last section
of the course we will move toward our modern world, tracing the
development of public health and surveillance systems, the germ
theory of disease, and the emergence of modern biomedical views of
plague. Even with science and medical success plague remained, and
still is, a cultural idea and image, a word that summons images and
fears readily explored in art, literature, film, and now the
internet. In the modern segment of the course we will follow the
story of art, imagery and lingering popular fears of plague. But we
will concentrate on the events and predicaments for a multicultural
American community in 1900, at the intersection between longstanding
cultural traditions and the beginnings of modern scientific plague
approaches. Lecture notes will be on Oncourse. Most of the grade for
non-honors’ students comes from 3 exams. Each unit ends with an in-
class examination. The final examination is not cumulative, and will
cover only the last (modern) section of the course. Honors students
will need to take the exams, but also write a guided research paper,
meeting every 2 weeks with Prof. Carmichael and submitting the paper
in 3 installments. You should choose a topic that will work over the
entire time period.

William Naphy and Andrew Spicer, Plague: Black Death and Pestilence
in Europe

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900
Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown

Other readings will be available online.