New Wondrium Series Updates Ideas about the Black Death

expanded information on fleas, grain trade among new information about plague spread

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Black Death first struck almost 700 years ago—but we’re still learning about it. New evidence has shed light on the infamous plague and teaches us about the science of disease. Bubonic plague is under the microscope again.

Dr. Dorsey Armstrong
In Wondrium’s new series, The Black Death: New Lessons from Recent Research, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong corrects previously held knowledge about the Black Death. Photo by Wondrium

Humanity once believed that the Black Death was a disease that only affected the poor. Scandinavian myths about plague include tall tales of lone survivors being the living embodiment of the plague, or Denmark’s association of the plague with a mist. We’ve learned more since then, but even in the 21st century, some of our knowledge about the Black Death is still being replaced or updated.

Wondrium’s new series The Black Death: New Lessons from Recent Research corrects previously held knowledge about the Black Death and updates the previous series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, both hosted by Dr. Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University. Jessica Darago, Wondrium content developer, worked on New Lessons from Recent Research and said that in recent years, quickly changing science necessitated the new series.

Science and History

“In the past six years, the science has changed rapidly—the information about the genetics, the research, has all rewritten our picture of what really happened, specifically during the 14th century and the Black Death,” Darago said. “A lot of this series is more scientific than you would maybe expect in a history series, but [Dr. Armstrong] has a way of integrating the science and the history in a way that I think is unique possibly among our professors and possibly among anyone else talking on this subject.”

Darago continued by saying that the Black Death was a very profound moment in European history, but looking at how the plague arrived in Europe and the human response to it illuminates human nature with regard to pandemics. Obviously, this is relevant in a world struggling with the coronavirus, making the series much more relevant and important today than it may have seemed just five years ago, before the pandemic.

“How people react to plague, how survivors respond in the aftermath in ways both positive and negative to the experience, I think we can see ourselves in a lot of what happened back then,” Darago said. “I think it’s important to recognize our common humanity in that way and recognize that we’ve survived before and we’ll survive again, and maybe we can do it better if we know the lessons of history.”

Plague Doctor

Dr. Dorsey Armstrong returns to Wondrium for this new series expanding on her previous series, The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Darago worked closely with Dr. Armstrong on the series and praised her scholarship as well as her ability to make complex information understandable to laypeople.

“Part of my job is being the series’ first audience,” Darago said. “One of the things that Dr. Armstrong is particularly skilled at is […] no matter what your background is, taking these complicated ideas and bringing them to you in a way that is straightforward and accessible and yet ties these different threads of history—and in this case, science—together to show you a larger picture.

“She is outstanding at this.”

According to Darago, Dr. Armstrong also has a terrific sense of humor, which is difficult to balance against such a heavy subject. On the contrary, a little humanity and levity can be sorely needed when discussing a disease that killed 100 million people.

The Black Death: New Lessons from Recent Research is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily