Teaching Module

Children during the Black Death


This teaching module offers an array of evidence to investigate the experience of children during the Black Death and question the traditional view that the epidemic caused wide-spread social chaos resulting in the abandonment of family members, even of children by their parents.

The traditional view of the Black Death comes from the literary evidence on the breakdown of the family, represented here by Giovanni Boccaccio and contemporary Italian chroniclers. Encourage students to pay close attention to the terms used, noting their similarity, and to evaluate whether or not such accounts should be considered eyewitness reports.

The module then asks students to consider a legal source, testaments, written in Bologna during the height of the Black Death, in which testators name their children as heirs. Ask students to consider reasons why these wills were made and by whom. What were the legal requirements limiting the production of the source, the advantages and disadvantages of such sources? What can these four wills tell them about a general population?

One graph shows the number of extant testaments that were made in Bologna during the Black Death. The graph makes clear the impact of plague, but at the same time each will represents a gathering of at least nine people—the testator, notary, priest and at least six other witnesses—usually inside the testator's house. According to Roman law in effect in medieval Italy, women could not be witnesses, so we can only assume that they were present at the dictation of their family members' wills. We do know that many women, as mothers of children, made wills and they were supported in this by their families.

Discussion Questions

1. Compare the language used by Giovanni Boccaccio and by the chroniclers in their accounts of the experience of the Black Death.

  • Even without understanding the Latin or Italian, try to look at what words and patterns of words are similar among these authors who lived all over the Italian peninsula during the same period. What do you notice about these accounts?

    Possible answer:
    These authors borrow heavily from each other, or, more probably, the chroniclers mimicked the words of one of the most famous literary authors of the time, Giovanni Boccaccio. The Italian chroniclers' job was to record the events that happened in their own town for posterity, but clearly they were also literary writers and as such would have some moral purpose or personal agenda to their writing that went beyond objective reporting.
  • What kinds of problems might modern students of the Black Death come up against when using these accounts?
  • What else would you like to learn from these accounts?
  • Are you satisfied with using the information in these accounts in order to learn about the experience of children and their families in the past?

2. Compare the language of the four testaments.

  • What words and information come from the testator himself or herself and what words are supplied by the notary who wrote up the testament?
  • What kinds of problems does the legal language of testaments pose for the researcher?

    Possible answer:
    They tell little or nothing about peoples' emotions, concerns, and thoughts. In addition, the testator may have been influenced by the notary in deciding his or her bequests.

3. What information can you as researcher of the experience of the Black Death be satisfied with from the testaments?

  • What information is problematic or vague?

    Possible answer:
    The specifics of the dictation of the will as a social event demonstrates that at least nine people, including testator, notary, and seven witnesses, were present. However, there is a fair amount of information that is not provided, such as the ages of the children. The testament mentions that they have occupations and at least some have families.

4. Envision the dictation of each will as it took place:

  • How many people were there? Where were they?
  • What were they doing?
  • What happened during and after the testator declared his or her last wishes?
  • What does this tell us about the behavior of these four people and their families during the Black Death?

5. With the graph in section B, these four wills are shown in the wider context of the city. Considering that each will represents individuals who have not fled or abandoned their families.

  • What groups of people likely stayed in town, at home, with their families?
  • What would you like to know about the wills in order to be sure that they reflect widespread behavior?
  • How many people were in the town?
  • How many would normally write a will?
  • How many were parents when they wrote their will?

6. Compare the chroniclers' emphasis on parents abandoning their children with the information in the testaments and the image of the family in the "Dance of Death" woodcut.

  • In the "Dance of Death" image, is the child being abandoned by his family?
  • Is there evidence of abandonment in the four testaments and the graph of all extant testaments?
  • What would you say was the experience of children and families in Bologna during the Black Death?

How to Cite This Source

Shona Kelly Wray, "Children during the Black Death," in Children and Youth in History, Item #167, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/167 (accessed August 10, 2021).