SHP15: third plenary

Alison Kitson is talking about the Black Death.

She starts with a side note to the presentation: information about a project called Miriam’s Vision which offers lessons and resources on the topic of 7/7 with reference to Miriam Hyman who was killed in the bombing.

Alison is focusing on using recent historical scholarship to challenge and engage all our students: today, year 7 and the Black Death. She feels that a lot of the lessons she sees on this don’t really communicate how horrific and terrifying the episode was.


She begins by talking about John Hatcher’s book The Black Death. This book focuses on one small village in Cambridgeshire. He drew on the documentary evidence available to create “literary docudrama” – fiction, but as close to reality as it can be. His central character is Master John, the deputy parish priest; he is also fictional, though based on a wide variety of contemporary documents. Like a thriller, the tension builds in the book for half the text before the Black Death appears. This book inspired Rachel Foster to write a new scheme of work, details of which were published in Teaching History 151. This, in turn, inspired a PGCE student, Sophie Tutt, to use characters from the book to identify change and continuity through the story.

Secondly, new sources of evidence. Kitson references The Black Death In London by Barney Sloane, an archaeologist. He analysed the wills held at the Court of Hustings: these were usually drawn up when death was imminent and enrolled when death had occurred. This gives a powerful indication of death rate, allowing us to see how quickly it spread. It also gives real human insight: what was passed on, what family members were involved, etc. of course it is only the wealthier members of the population that did this (he estimates 4%) so he supplements with records from the court and account rolls of the Manor of Stepney. He also draws on archaeological findings. As well as providing a human aspect to the story, he provides really explicit evidence for what he is presenting – the opposite end of the spectrum to John Hatcher.

Sloane estimates that roughly 58% of the population of London died during the Black Death, and his evidence, when plotted, shows a concentration of deaths in a short space of time: Feb to July in 1349. DNA analysis of the bones suggests a lot of the victims found buried in London were not from London. Inspired by Sloane, Kitson planned the enquiry, “What do we think happened in London during the Black Death?”

She starts with a hint: Crossrail. This will involve some major digging, year 7. What might they have found? A body! They think it’s old because it was so deep, so who do they call? Thereafter they assume the role of the historian to take that call. We consider what questions we might ask when presented with the body. Unpicking the evidence, year 7 were able to conclude that they probably died of the Black Death. There are YouTube clips provided by Crossrail of this dig.


Students are provided with sources to match with the questions displayed above: two or three for each question and two or three red herrings.
Sloane’s work is introduced in lesson 4 (with his picture, to prove he is a regular person).

The third area that Kitson has been looking at is current debate: specifically, debate about causes.


The debates are read out by volunteers and then Barney, who looks suspiciously like Ian Dawson, responds to audience questions aimed at solving some of the puzzles that come out of them.

Now, students write their piece: a report for Crossrail. Kitson provides a terrible report and students are challenged to improve it, in the light of what they have learned about the Black Death. This helps them to think about using the evidence to support the conclusions they were making.

Aims of the unit:


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