A few of my favorite things…

Campus is all spiffed up...

Campus is all spiffed up…

Ah, it’s that time of year again.  Mors nigra, atra mors, The Great Mortality, The Great Plague….

Wait – did you think I was going to wax on about the upcoming Christmas holiday? 

Heaven’s no!  Christmas?  That’s still more than two weeks off.  Can’t go there until I put the Fall semester to bed.

This time of year, my intro class hits the late medieval period (I have no idea how I used to be able to take this class through the Reformation!?)  Mors nigra, atra mors, The Great Mortality, The Great Plague are all descriptors for the massive pandemic that hit Europe in the mid 14th Century.  Now commonly referred to as the Black Death, it’s one of the big points to cover the last section of World Civ.

Isn't that a cheery gif?

Isn’t that a cheery gif?                                       Source

I’ve tried to cover it a number of ways, and this year, since I’ve committed to using group activities at least once in each topical unit, enter the beans!


What we have here represents a medieval manor which is about to be infected by the plague.  Each bean represents a person on the manor.  The plain pinto beans are serfs, the “F” pinto beans are free peasants, the “C’s” craftsmen and the white beans are the “others” the Lord, his lady, the parish priest, the manor knights and men at arms.  One hundred beans in all go into a brown paper lunch bag.

Class breaks into groups, each group gets a manor or a town (ie, a bag of beans).  Estimates are that 1/3-1/2 of the overall population of Europe died in 14th century pandemic.  Splitting the difference, each group blindly pulls 41 beans from their bag.  RIP beans – you are the Great Mortality in this simulation…hopefully the local priest was left alive!

The next step is to assess who is left, and how life goes on now. (there is a score sheet)  It is always an interesting process.  Each group has a slightly different survival outcome which will require different means of coping.  Once all the groups have determined their plan for recovery, I set the manors on each other…yesterday’s pestilence left two manors with lord-less, knight-less ladies.  The surviving knights from the remaining manor, decided the time was ripe to get married!

I blow kind of hot and cold on simulations.  I think students generally like them and I think the point about survival, adjustment and recovery was well established, but I have to admit that I am fully expecting to hear about pinto beans on the final exam!

Of course, all of this medieval stuff got me thinking about the forthcoming medieval knight from the neighborhood…

Is this the lone still? Source

Bonjour Raymond de Merville                                                                                 Source

From what I recall, Pilgrimage is set in the 13th century, so well before the onset of the Black Death.  However, since anachronism in period films is common (it’s all medieval right?!), Raymond dear, your mighty sword won’t help you.  If you see anyone with tennis ball sized black carbuncles on their necks, run away…RUN AWAY!!

11 comments on “A few of my favorite things…

  1. Guylty says:

    What a fantastic idea, those beans and the various survival scenarios that the groups have to deal with. I almost feel like “playing” this with my resident history buffs. (Damn, they have long passed the Middle Ages in school and are currently dealing with the emergence of the Irish republic, resp. Irish Home Rule – well, this might be fun, though…) Masterful bridging of the gap between RL and RA, though, Prof Obscura. Surely, cher Raymond was far too strong (and clever) to succumb to the black death and instead used his brimming virility to expand not only his assets but also his territory… I feel some fanfic coming on *ahem*

  2. Esther says:

    What a fun way to use this bean-teaching method, I love it! And I have a question on that map gif: how come Cracow/Poland was spared from the Black Death (and the bit around Milan and south-west France), do you know?

  3. Very clever! Engaging students in “living” the subject is certainly a key to learning. Though with this unit on the plague, referencing it that way (“living”) might seem to be ironic. Ha!

  4. linnetmoss says:

    With Raymond de Merville as a visual aid, you couldn’t go wrong 🙂

  5. Perry says:

    Great lesson plan, Obscura, with an ingenious RA connection. I recently re-visited one of my favorites audio books, – A Distant Mirror, (Barbara Tuchman). Loaded with plague and knights.

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