I recently had the chance to talk to the sixth-graders at Friends’ Central Schoolabout the Black Death. I really enjoyed translating scholarship on the plague into terms that middle-school students would both understand and enjoy. Some of it is easy—Gabriele de’ Mussis’s account of plague-infested corpses catapulted into Kaffa, for instance:
The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.
Boccaccio’s discussion of the pigs that died of the plague in Florence was also popular:
This pestilence was so powerful that it spread from the ill to the healthy like fire among dry or oily materials. It was so bad that it could be communicated not only through speaking or associating with the sick, but even by touching their clothing or anything else they had touched. What I must say here is so strange that if I and others had not seen it with our own eyes I would hesitate to believe it, let alone write about it, even if I had heard it from trustworthy people. The pestilence spread so efficiently that, not only did it pass from person to person, but if an animal touched the belongings of some sick or dead person it contracted the pestilence and died of it in a short time. I myself witnessed this with my own eyes, as I said earlier. One day when a poor man had died and his rags had been thrown out in the street, two pigs came along and, as pigs do, they pushed the rags about with their snouts and then seized them with their teeth. Both soon fell down dead on the rags, as if they had taken poison.
I hoped to convey to them how quickly the plague moved through Europe. To do so, I put together a short film illustrating the spread of the plague. In this film, from 1347 until the end, each month takes about 2 1/2 seconds. This worked to show the rapidity of the spread at the outset and the gradual slowing over the years.
Initially, I set each month to 1 second, but I found that I didn’t have time to fill in details. So I slowed it down to give me more time to fill in relevant or interesting details.
If we accept that de’ Mussis‘s account is accurate: The Tartar armies probably did not use catapults, which are generally incapable of hurling heavy objects very far. It seems more likely that the Tartars used something like a trebuchets, which can send much heavier objects much further. ↩