The Black Death: A Digital Exhibit

This digital exhibit was created by students in Professor Alison Beach's History of Medieval Europe 2 course in Spring of 2015 at The Ohio State University.

On the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century:

“After the Justinianic Plague (c. 541–c. 750), which has been called the First Plague Pandemic, the Black Death or Second Plague Pandemic was likely the first semi-global phenomenon that fully merits the name—affecting “all people” (pan + demos). Total (absolute) mortality would be higher from several nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, or the current HIV/AIDS pandemic. But when expressed as a percentage of the population, the mortality caused by the Black Death is the highest of any large-scale catastrophe known to humankind, save for the impact of smallpox and measles on indigenous peoples in first-contact events of the early modern period. The Black Death killed an estimated 40% to 60% of all people in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa when it first struck there in the mid-fourteenth century. Its demographic effects are well known (particularly with respect to Western Europe), and there is a considerable body of historical scholarship on population losses and the economic and political changes that ensued. Such questions about its aftermath are important, of course; but so, too, are questions of why and how the pandemic happened in the first place and how it was sustained. For these questions, we currently have no definitive answers. Even its full geographic extent is still unknown: we are only now beginning to engage with scientific and documentary evidence.” 
-- Monica Green, Editor’s Introduction to Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death. The Medieval Globe 1 (2014): vii


Geographical Origins of the Black Death

1. Bobby Taylor and Alec Livingston. Text: Essay on the Report of Pestilence by Abu Hafs ‘Umar ibn Al-Wardi, ca. 1348. Image: Map of Europe, drawing ca. 1570 Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg, Handzeichnung. Music: Neresheimer Orgeltabulatur F.K. 2122, performed by Ernst Stolz.

Our project atttempts to show the spread of the plague from the perspective of Abu Hafs ‘Umar ibn Al-Wardi. As a Muslim from the Levant, his focus is primarily on the plague’s movement in the eastern parts of Europe and the western parts of the Middle East. On top of his stated movements of the plague, we added the actual movement of the plague, as science can best explain it, to show the differences in perspective between his chronicle and what happened.


2. Brandon Darty and Dan Mitchell. Text: Louis Sanctus, Letter (April 27, 1348). Image: The Gloomy Day (De Sombere Dag), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Oil on Wood, 1565. Music: Ballo Amaroso, by Piffaro.

Louis Sanctus was a musician performing for the papal court at Avignon in the fourteenth century, during the time of the Black Death. In a letter that he sent to friends in Bruges, he chronicles the arrival of the plague into Europe from the East through various Mediterranean ports. Because Louis Sanctus received most of this information through rumors, his description of the plague’s arrival is vivid and apocalyptic, often reminiscent of the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt. By combining and transforming Louis Sanctus’s ominous letter and Brueghel’s bucolic painting of a medieval village, we hope to emphasize the sense of impending doom that Louis Sanctus and his contemporaries felt as the plague swept across the Mediterranean coast.

3. Will Shiner. Text: Giovanni Villani, Chronicle c. 1348. Image: Et in Arcadia Ego, Guercino. Music: Lamento di Tristano & La Rotta 

This video shows how stories that seem crazy to people today seemed normal to people during the panic of the plague. The audio takes quotes from Giovanni Villani’s Chronicle telling some of the fantastical stories and explaining where the plague came from and how it spread. 

4. Soren Jaderlund and Jeremy Jett. Text: Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantine History. Image: Morbetto by Marcantonio Raimondi. Music: Psalm 148 from the Genevan Psalter, performed by Ernst Stolz.

The text, Nicephorus Gregoras’ Byzantine History ca. 1359, describes the initial invasion of plague on the European continent. Gregoras details the plague’s symptoms and its ability to cripple entire communities as it traveled along the Mediterranean coastline. The image illustrates the horrors experienced by those powerless to stop the relentless advance of the plague. The original image was created as an imprint, and was originally black and white. We recolored the image and used transitions in order to convey a sense of hopelessness as the plague spread. As the reading continues, the image becomes darker and de-saturated. Eventually, only the black and white outline of the original work remains.


Medieval Medical and Scientific Explanations


5. Briana Lundquist and Bryanne Vollmer. Text: Chronicle of Michele da Piazza, a Franciscan friar in Sicily c. 1347 and 1361.  Image: miniature from the Toggenburg Bible, a manuscript created in early fifteenth-century Switzerland. Music: “Lamento di Tristano,” from an early fifteenth-century Tuscan manuscript (the “London Manuscript”), performed by Ernst Stolz. 

We hope that this piece will help provide a glimpse into the mindset of the time surrounding the Black Death, and how the illness itself created such a deep impression on mankind. Our animation attempts to show the progression of the bubonic strain of the Black Death, both through the description provided by Michele da Piazza and the progression of plague swellings across the victims. It is important to note that there are often discrepancies in the primary verbal and visual descriptions of plague symptoms. The presence of buboes all over the body seen in this miniature may suggest that this is actually a misidentified case of smallpox, not plague.

Video not available.

6. Kyle Danahy and Chic Laurer. Text: Introduction to the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1349-1351. Image: “The Abbot” by Hans Holbein the Younger, and is part of his woodcut series “The Dance of Death”. Music: Lamento di Tristano from the "London Manuscript" - tenor fiddle, performed by Ernst Stolz. 
The skeleton in this image contains symbolizes that death was always lurking during the years of the plague. The plague was extremely contagious and it spread quickly. The disease spread quickly because animals such as rats served as vectors for the plague. If the Black Death ended up spreading to a person then they would be dead within a couple of days. There were many attempts to save those who fell ill, but both religious and medical efforts were in vain. As Boccaccio states, “few of those who caught it ever recovered”. The man in the picture looks helpless, and that is because without a proper remedy, mankind was left helpless in the hands of this devastating plague.

7. Alyssa Jennings and Reba Kocher. Text: Description and Remedy for Escaping the Plague by Abu Jafar Ahmad Idn Khatima. Image: The Effects of Good Government in the City by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-1339). Sound: “Wrong Turn” by PurplePlanet, and “Small Crowd pre-concert talking party bar walla talking” by JohnsonBrandEditing
People believed that the plague was spread through bad air, called a miasma. The miasma was thought to have come up from the ground, killing everyone it came into contact with despite their social class or religious standing. Anywhere from 30-50% of the population in Siena, the city represented in the fresco, succumbed to the deadly disease. This animation emphasizes the swiftness and unprejudiced manner in which the disease took hold of European people due to the bad air. The text instructs the people of the time with information to protect them from the miasma while the animation shows what happens when these instructions are not followed.

8. Willie Bevens. Text: Louis Sanctus, Letter (April 27, 1348). Image: Jan Stephen van Calcar, Vesalius Fabrica, 1534. Music: Chris Zabriskie, Cylinder Four, January 2, 2014.
The image is from an anatomy book known as the “De Humani Corporis Fabrica.” The aim of this image and its pairing with the text and music is to provide a feeling of dread and death that was associated with the Black Death. The most powerful part of the text, however, is the mentioning of the desertion of family members from taking care of their sick loved ones. The image both illustrates the dread and pain of the plague along with the sorrow and anguish that accompanied it.

9. Arika Calhoun. Text: Jacime D’aramont’s Regimen of Protection against Epidemics. Image: “The Burning of the Jews” by Hartmann Schedel (1493). Music: Premiere Deploration sur la mort de Guillaume de Machaut – F. Andrieu, performed by Ernst Stolz. 
The texts describes how burning of different woods can help protect from the Black Death, but I wanted to use an image that also showed something more powerful. Jewish people were persecuted and burned alive as a way to protect from the plague as well. Together, these texts and image offer a better representation of the Black Death.

10. Brian Lenahan. Text: Jean de Venette, Black Death in Paris. Image: Music: Black Death, from the Toggenburg Bible (1411). Music: Trotto Danza, Fourteenth-century dance music.
This video shows the progression of the plague as it takes over the body, eventually killing its unfortunate victims. The audio recording is a section of de Venette's account that tells about the particulary gruesome symptoms of the pestilence. The angel that appears is an allusion to the divine. The smoke, exemplifies life and death, for white, and black smoke respectively.
11. Ric Eader and Alissa Medley. Text: Consultation of the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris, 6 October 1348. Image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Bad Government on the Countryside. 
This project shows the medical faculty at the University of Paris, as indicated in the document, Consultation, believed that the aligning of the planets in the sky was the distant cause of the plague. They believed that the planets aligned a few months before the plague occurred, which caused the air to turn foul on the ground thus creating the Black Death. We have illustrated this using the image of The Effects of Bad Government on the Countryside by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and public images of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. In order to add a bit of emotion to the piece we used sound effects of wind, thunder, and flute music.  

Religious Mentalities

12. Michael Rueger and Bailey Wallace. Text: King Pedro IV of Aragon, Response to the Jewish Pogrom of Tárrega. Image: Hartmann Schedel, Jews Burning, illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Music: Separation of Soul and Body, performed by Ernst Stolz.
The Black Death of 1348 began in Central Asia and rapidly moved through the West, infecting the masses as it rolled through the farmlands and cities of early Europe. People turned to religion and medicine, but neither method came with a resolution to stopping the plague. With no logical answers, a mass hysteria developed among the Christian majority of Europe, and they started to blame their Jewish neighbors. Jews were burned and tortured into confessing sins of poisoning wells and spreading the disease with intent to destroy parts of Christendom. In 1349, King Pedro IV of Aragon produced a description of the heinous acts his subjects committed against Jews as a response to the Black Death. 

13. Michael Griffith. Text: Gabriele de Mussis, History of the Plague. Image: Josse Lieferinxe, St. Sebastian Interceding for the Plague-Stricken (1497-1499). Music: "All Ding Mit Radt - Arnolt Schlick 1512," performed by Ernst Stoltz.
The Black Death brought so much death that many could not find fathomable explanations for its cause and permeation. In response to this seemingly illogical catastrophe and lack of justification, many turned to religion believing that this plague was, “proof of the righteous judgment of God visited upon a sinful humanity.” (Aberth, 94). Even then some almost couldn’t believe the aforementioned description. People, overwhelmed, asked for God’s mercy (Aberth, 94). These religious sentiments and mentalities were chronicled and opined through writing and oratory by people such as Gabriele De Mussis. Artists such as Josse Lieferinxe also placed these feelings on canvas and other artistic mediums to show the judgment of God and the conscription for his mercy through artistic expression. 

Video not available.

14. Jenna Cosentino and Emiley Gammella. Text: Chronicle,  Fritsche Closener (1360-1362). Image: Flagellants by Pieter van Laer. Music: Neresheimer Orgeltabulator F.K 21, 22, performed by Ernst Stolz
Through this project we were trying to convey the fear and gore associated with the flagellants as they processed through Europe during the Black Plague era. As they traveled, the flagellants spilled their blood and actually acted as a vector for the disease because they were unclean and covered in wounds. The music we chose, and particularly the sound effects, convey the hellish circumstances of the plague and the terrifying actions of the flagellants. The flagellants believed they were trying to get forgiveness from God because they thought the plague was God’s anger towards humanity, but they contributed to the psyche of hysteria surrounding the plague.

15. Julia Dagg and Jordan Geraci. Text:The Procession at Damascus from Ibn Battuta, Travels. Image: Sueleymaniye.
Islamic author Ibn Battuta tells an unbelievable story about the time of the Black Death. During that time the city of Damascus had been suffering terribly from the plague’s outbreak. As a result, the local sultan ordered the city to conduct a religious fast in order to plead to God to avert the pestilence. The truly miraculous part of this story is not that the plague was averted by the players, but that this story reveals a time in which it is clearly seen that people of different religions, creeds and ethnicities gathered together in the wake of a disaster in order to pray for help from the heavens.

Video not available.

16. Cooper Legeza. Text: Robert of Avesbury, De gestis mirabilibus regis Edwardi Tertii. Image: Flagellant procession in the Netherlands c. 1350. Music: Maria muoter reinu mait (1349).
People have long used ritual to attempt to exert control over a situation that they feel they have no control of. Funerals, birthdays, down to the mundane rituals we all perform in our every day life. Nowhere is this example greater than the flagellants of the Black Death. Flagellants would harm themselves, typically with whips or knotted ropes, in an attempt to appease God into stopping the Black Death, believing their pain would remove their earthly sins. Thus we can see the use of ritual, used by people during the Black Plague, in an attempt to impose order and control on an inherently uncontrollable situation. 

Societal and Economic Impact

17. Emily Ennis and Jordan Schoonover. Text: Giovanni Boccaccio, Introduction to the Decameron (written between 1349 and 1351). Image: Bennozzo Gozzoli, Saint Zenobius Resuscitating a Dead Child. Music: Angelica Bilta-Francesco Landini-viols, performed by Ernst Stolz.
The introduction to the Decameron details Boccaccio’s own experiences during the Black Death in Florence, and he focuses particularly the impact that the plague had on society. We paired this text and image, based on a Florentine saint’s story, and then added as background music to convey the emotional impact of what Boccaccio describes. Since he focuses so much on the plague’s destruction of social bonds, particularly between mothers and their children, we decided to take a later image of a third-century saint being begged by a mother to save her child and transform it to show how the Black Death altered the normal societal structures of Florence. Boccaccio also describes the way servants were seen as taking advantage of the plague and so their transformation shows not only their greed but also that they often died in their work. Overall the introduction paints a picture of Florence socially decaying as the plague progresses, which was the theme we wished to convey. 

18. Matt Arnett and Eric Mescher. Text:  A History of the Ayyubids and Mamluks by Ahmad Ibn Ali al-Maqrizi (fifteenth century). Image: Rondel Dagger Merchants, c. 1430’s. Music: I Come Sweet Birds, Robert Jones, performed by Piffaro. 
In this animation, we are attempting to demonstrate the effects of the Black Death beyond the immense death toll in Europe that many associate with the plague. The Black Death occurred in other areas such as Egypt, and had a devastating effect on social life and economic life in society. This image and text pairing represent how society went from being full of trade and social relations to a bleak and gloomy world during the span of the Black Death. Trade and farming virtually disappeared as death took its toll and those who continued to live took to occupations concerning the dead. Common social events such as weddings and concerts ceased to occur. We hope this animation gives an insight into how the Black Death temporarily dictated society.

19. Christine Masternak. Text: Agnola di Tura's Sienese Chronicle (1348 – 1351). Image: Burying Plague Victims at Tournai , and ian illumination in the Chronicles of Gilles li Muisis (c. 1348). Music: Gregorian chant mass from "Au Fil des Lectures," and church bells from a small town in France called Peaveycroquette. 
I attempted to convey the importance of grave diggers during the plague years due to the sheer number of bodies that the pandemic created, and what it would look like when those grave diggers were dead too. 

Artistic Responses

20. Jennifer Lopez. Text: A Disputacioun betwyx the Body and Wormes (c. 1450). Image: Book of Hours of Jean Poyer (c. 1500). 
The Book of Hours depicts a skeleton riding a bull, holding a spear in each hand. The skeleton can be interpreted as a personification of death. For the purposes of my project, the skeleton symbolizes the plague engaging the viewer, as if death was coming to conquer them as the narrator says. A popular theme in post-plague art was that death had no preference in the societal status of its victims. No one was safe from the clutches of the Black Death. The smoke that appears is meant to represent an ominous outcome for the viewer. As the smoke comes in, the music crescendos, and we hear the bull that Death is riding.

21. Michelle Roman. Text: Heinrich of Herford. Image: “La Mort jouant aux eches avec un Roi” by Ishrael van Meckenem (c.1403). Music: Medieval Dance No.2 Anon, performed by Ernst Stolz.
The Black Death left an artistic impact on the medieval world, as the society and culture of that time became fixated with death. Death became a prominent theme in works of art and literature, and thus began the art of Memento Mori (Remember You Must Die). These artworks began personifying death by using skulls as people, and these pieces can be seen as the foundation for the imagery of the grim reaper. A common personification of death at this time was death as a chess player, playing against either a knight or a commoner. This depiction by Ishrael van Meckenem portrays medieval society’s desperate and futile attempts to avoid and outwit death from the plague as it raged from town to town. 

The Lens of Folklore

22. Sarah Barringer. Story: traditional folklore from Scandinavia, from Kvideland, Reimund, and Henning K. Sehmsdorf, eds. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Print. Image: fifteenth-century woodprint, the Shipyard, creator unknown. Soundscape: Nedev, Kamen. “Seagulls, Porto, 2006-12-31.” Neutel, Hugo. “Bridge Buzz.”; Targa, Marco. “ Caorle (VE) - Night sea.” Soundtransit. 
The text overlay is a piece of traditional folklore from Scandinavia, making it very difficult to date or give an original author. I chose the image because it allowed me to introduce animation into a setting similar to the one described in the text, being activity buzzing around a docked ship. In my animation I attempt to bring forward some of the main themes of the folktale, death, fear of the sea and strangers, and greed.

23. Marisa Wieneke. Story: “The Horse that Carried the Corpses across the Mountains,” from The Folktales of Norway (1964). edited by R.T.Christiansen, translated by Pat Shaw Iversen. Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Triumph of Death" (Detail), 1562. Music: "Førnesbrunen, Gangar Etter Ola Bernås Kv." performed by Johannes Dahle and Gunnar Dahle,  from Norsk Folkemusikk Slåttar Frå Telemark I. Ta:lik (2009).
The story of the "Horse that Carried the Corpses Across the Mountains" details the events surrounding a mysterious horse who carries the corpses of plague victims to a church many miles away. There is an associated fiddle ballad know as "Førnesbrunen" in which the hoof beats of the horse can be heard in the melody of the song as well as the slowing of the horse as it succumbs to exhaustion. I have paired together both the narration of the story and the fiddle song because together they make the story complete. This Folktale is accompanied by a detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1562 painting "The Triumph of Death". This painting offers a grim depiction of an emaciated horse ridden by a skeleton carrying a wagon of skulls and is playing on the popular imagery of Death riding a pale horse from the book of Revelation. Through the combination of image and story I hope to offer up the theory that the horse is not just a horse but the plague itself and its passing is not a sad affair but the end of the Black Death.

Very special thanks to Laura Seeger of the Goldberg Center and Brian Leaf of Thompson Library’s Instructional Design center for their technical support for the project, to our student-curators Emily Ennis, Reba Kocher, and Christine Masternak, and to Ernst Stolz and Piffaro for their generous permission for the unrestricted use of their wonderful music. I am particularly grateful to Prof. Bettina Matthias of Middlebury College, whose Digital Weimar Exhibit inspired this project, and who graciously shared her ideas with me.