Plagued by Alternative Facts: Bringing Medieval Research to Secondary School Teachers

The 2016-2017 Course Innovation Academy concluded in April, marking another successful year of guiding a small group of faculty members toward a significant course re-design.  One of this year’s participants, Winston Black, an Assistant Professor of History, gave a recent workshop for secondary school teachers on how to help students engage with medieval history.  Learning about the fascinating work that many of our faculty do to promote excellence in teaching, both off and on campus, has been one of the great side benefits of the Course Innovation Academy.  So although this work of Winston’s did not emerge from the Academy, we are very pleased to share below a description he wrote of his experience working with secondary teachers.

“Plagued by Alternative Facts”

by Winston Black

It’s a simple rule when teaching history: students love the Black Death. I’ve found this to be true with high school, college, and graduate students. The gorier the details and the more shocking the images, the more they pay attention. And teachers love it too. It provides plenty of death, gore, tragedy, heroics, and superstition, but at an emotionally manageable distance of seven centuries. More seriously, it’s satisfying for a history teacher to see students engaged with later medieval religion, economics, and politics as they encounter the various reactions to pandemic bubonic plague.

But the very aspects of the Black Death that make it fun to learn about and teach—medieval peoples’ inability to explain or stop the disease, their apparently bizarre reactions to it, and the vast number of online resources about the plague—are the same ones that lead teachers and students into traps. Simply put, much of the information about the Black Death, and many of the images used to represent it, in textbooks and on apparently credible websites are out-of-date or incorrect. Many of the teachers at the workshop admitted that they and their students used the Internet to find additional sources and images for the Black Death, without the tools or information to verify their authenticity. My worry is that students’ easy and unchecked acceptance of any online information about the Black Death could then be applied to other historical events, like the American Revolution or the Holocaust, for which errors could have more serious consequences.

This was the subject of a workshop I ran on March 24, 2017, for the second annual Medieval Studies Workshop for Middle and Secondary Educators, held at Fitchburg State University, and sponsored by their Center for Professional Studies. Sixty teachers from around Massachusetts attended the workshop, earning professional development points (PDPs), which are required for renewal of their Massachusetts teaching licenses. About forty of them attended my workshop, in which I walked them through answers to the questions: How can teachers who are not familiar with the latest scholarship on the Black Death present it effectively and accurately to their junior high and high school students? What resources, in textbooks and online, are authentic representations of the Black Death and which are not? Attendees were asked to do some primary and secondary source readings in advance, which I had posted on a wiki for the workshop.

Winston Black Image--Science

In a one-hour presentation, I shared a mix of content and pedagogy, based on my own experience teaching the Black Death over the last decade to undergraduate and graduate students, that I thought could also benefit junior high and high school students. In the first place, I briefly walked the group through the latest science of the bubonic plague, which is useful in engaging those students who might not automatically be interested in medieval plague, and which is not represented in even the latest history textbooks: the medieval Black Death has been decisively proven to be bubonic plague using ancient DNA from skeletons; scientists have now sequenced the plague genome; we now know plague is spread by all rodents, squirrels, and rabbits and not just the maligned black rat; plague is on the rise again in Madagascar and the American southwest; and so on.


Second, I helped the teachers think about primary sources. Many of them wanted to spend more time on the Black Death in their classes, but didn’t know how to move beyond what is found in their textbooks. One problem in doing this is that nearly every textbook still uses the same source: Boccaccio’s preface to his Decameron. I walked the group through the problems of using just this source, which shows medieval society falling apart, to represent the plague. To balance the despair represented in this document, I suggested a small number of other sources (available in translation) that show medieval people confronting the plague with the religious, political, and scientific tools available to them. In a similar vein, I stressed the importance of presenting the plague as a crisis for all of Eurasia and North Africa, and not merely just England or Italy, as most textbooks present it. Again, I shared a few short sources written in Byzantium, Muslim Syria, and throughout Europe for students and teachers to understand the geographical and temporal spread of the disease.

As a final, “hands on” activity I had the teachers look up medieval images of the Black Death online in Google Images. Some had already done this for their own lessons plans or had students do this for class projects. After rejecting the clearly non-medieval images, some of the most common images were the five in the slide shown here.

Winston Black Image--Images

Sure enough, many of the teachers had used the two images in the upper left and upper right. Many at the workshop knew where I was going with this, however, since I had asked them to read beforehand a new essay about the perils of relying on the internet for accurate information or images of the Black Death: Lori Jones and Richard Nevell, “Plagued by doubt and viral misinformation: the need for evidence-based use of historical disease images,” The Lancet: Infectious Diseases 16: 10 (2016) . Jones and Nevell demonstrate that none of the most commonly used images of the Black Death in medical journals and historical websites, as well as on Wikipedia and even on the British Library website actually depict the Black Death.

In the slide shown here, the images in the upper left and lower right depict leprosy, and the one in the upper right shows the plague of boils sent by God to punish Egypt. Only the lower left and middle images actually depict people dying from the plague in the Middle Ages. I opened the workshop up to discussion at this point, and we talked about how students (of any age) can be misled by apparently trustworthy modern sources, and about how their teachers can design projects around images like this. Rather than simply pointing out that websites are often wrong (still an important point for students to understand), we can ask revealing questions using these image searches: What does it say about modern historians and physicians that we want our images of medieval plague to show diagnostic spots and boils? What does it say about medieval people that their genuine images of the plague focus on the intercession of the saints and the difficulty in burying the dead? I showed the group how they could build group projects or individual assignments around the juxtaposition of these images with the suggested primary sources, as well as with maps and information available in typical textbooks.

Our discussion was able to continue for the following week on the workshop wiki, where the teachers shared their own experiences in teaching the Black Death, asked questions about the sources and images, and shared ideas for adapting my suggested lessons to specific age groups. The workshop was a great success, and the oganizers are already planning for next year.