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McREL Standards Activity

Role playing the Plague

Purpose:As a result of this activity, students will better understand the effect of the plague on 14th century Europeans.
Related Standard & Benchmarks:
World History
 Standard 23.Understands patterns of crisis and recovery in Afro-Eurasia between 1300 and 1450
   Level IV [Grade 9-12]
   Benchmark 5. Understands perceptions of the Black Death from diverse, contemporaneous sources (e.g., from Boccaccio in Europe and Ibn Battuta in Egypt and Syria)
World History
 Standard 23.Understands patterns of crisis and recovery in Afro-Eurasia between 1300 and 1450
   Level IV [Grade 9-12]
   Benchmark 6. Understands events and consequences of Jewish scapegoating in Europe during the Great Plague (e.g., the cremation of Strasbourg Jews, pogroms in the Holy Roman Empire, Jewish flight to Poland and Russia) and the attitudes and values these events represent
World History
 Standard 23.Understands patterns of crisis and recovery in Afro-Eurasia between 1300 and 1450
   Level IV [Grade 9-12]
   Benchmark 7. Understands immediate and long-term consequences of the plague on European society (e.g., the medical, administrative, and psychological measures taken to cope with the plague in the 14th century; long-term consequences of recurrent pandemics in the 14th and 15th centuries on Europe society)
Student Product:A letter written from the perspective of an individual in 14th Century Europe
Material & Resources:The following websites will be of some use:
Boccaccio narrative
Jewish history during the Plague
Other narratives
General information
General Information
Teacher's Note:No supplementary notes for this activity.
The "Black Death" plague that swept through 14th century Europe left an estimated 1/3 of the population dead.  At the time, little was understood about this mysterious illness, and individuals for all areas of society were called upon to find an explanation and calm the terror associated with this disease.

The teacher can begin the activity following a brief background lesson on what the plague was, how it was contracted and spread, and what the mortality rate was in Europe as a result of the disease. After the lesson, students will be assigned a "character" and they will write a letter to a friend from the historical perspective of the character they have been assigned.  Students can pick their own roles, but the teacher should ensure that at least 1/3 of the students will be writing from the perspective of someone who has contracted the plague.  Suggested roles are listed below:

A physician
A member of the clergy
A traveling merchant
A town official, sheriff, or some other public administrator
A Jew in the Holy Roman Empire
An individual who has contracted the plague
A grave digger

Students can use the web resources listed above or other resources from the library or classroom to gather information about their specific "character."  To make the mortality statistics more tangible, the teacher can have the students who have contracted the plague spearated from the rest of the class when working on this project, either in a different part of the classroom or in another room altogether.  Students who are working on similar "characters" can share information, but must write their own letter.  When all of the letters have been completed, the letters can either be read aloud or posted throughout the classroom for other students to read.

The teacher can lead a facilitated discussion after all students have had the opportunity to either read or listen to the letters.  The class can discuss the similarities and differences among the characters, what biases they might have had, and how the plague had a lasting impact on European society.