The Black Death Mapping and NetLogo Exercise

“Everybody Died!”

Simulating Cultural and Social Factors in Outbreaks of Bubonic Plague

The Black Death that broke out in 1348 in medieval Europe and North Africa was caused by a bacteria (Y.Pestis), not a virus. The 1348 outbreak we all learned about in middle school wasn’t the first. It also wasn’t the last. An outbreak in the early 20th century that started in China hit Hawaii in 1899-1900 and San Francisco in 1900-1904. There were 1000 documented cases of plague in the US between 1900 and 2012, and the U.S. sees an average of 10 new cases each year, mostly in the southwest (New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona). In all of these pandemics, medical responses were shaped by social, cultural and economic norms that governed how people fit plague into their world view.

"Just seeing the inevitability of death in Constantinople with that density of people and the visualization of something that didn't really seem very [serious].... Otherwise you wouldn't think that these [primary source authors] are real…. " This terrible and mighty scourge with which the whole world was lashed in our days…not over the afflictions of one city…but over many cities which God's wrath turned into a wine-press and pitilessly trampled and squeezed all their inhabitants within them like fine grapes. John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History (circa 542 C.E.)

Our impulse is to read John’s description of plague in 540s Constantinople as residents of a modern-day college town. Easily accessible antibiotics and speedy transportation make it easy to dismiss descriptions of people being squashed like grapes as overly dramatic, or to assume the past was backward and the people who lived in it were ignorant.

What if we could use elements of our modern-day experience in Bloomington to help us understand Constantinople’s sixth-century context? Our goal in this study was to expose students’ present context, help them compare and contrast that present context to the past, and then connect their new contextual understanding to sixth-century primary sources that described social and cultural factors in plague response.

The study design (iteration 2)

The walls around sixth-century Constantinople are roughly the square mileage of our college town but with different population densities (150K and 500-800K respectively). We used that to make context more salient in an educational intervention in a college-level introductory history course of 94 people organized into 16 tables of 6 students each:

  • Students used GoogleMaps or GPS-enabled smartphones to track a day of walking in Bloomington. We then used Google Maps to provide comparisons with Constantinople’s context by asking them to trace 5 walking paths in Constantinople as a group, using the types of people they had encountered in their primary sources as a guide to creating each individual walking path and the intersections between all 5. We overlaid all of the groups’ Constantinople walking paths on each other to mimic the density of their college-town walking paths in order to discuss parallels and differences with their modern college town.
  • Students then interacted with an epidemiological simulation that compared population densities in Bloomington and Constantinople but also added social and cultural variables that affected medical response.
  • We measured learning gains based on pre-post tests about factors that would affect the rate, speed, and response to spread of plague. Successful students in the post-test understood that Constantinople’s dense urban population and its role as a trading and government center in late Antiquity would result in much faster plague spread, a contrast with student belief that fast modern transportation would lead to faster plague spread even in less urban areas.

Current project status

We are analyzing results from iteration 2 of the intervention but have some information and resources for the activities for educators who would like to use them in class.