Bubonic Plague Role Play

Developed by: Cindy Symons and Kristi Thomas

Students at Utah State University (Elementary Education)


Subject Areas: Social Studies/History

Grade Level: 5-7

Date: April 27, 2000

Objective: By doing the role play, students will be able to develop, in groups of 3 or 4, a hypothesis for the cause of the Bubonic Plague during the Renaissance.

Materials Needed:

1. Cue Cards (with parts written on them)

2. Props of any kind


1. Ask the students if they have ever wondered how diseases originate?

2. Explain to the class that they will be doing a role-play to figure out the reason for the Bubonic Plague that began around 1330. Connect it to previous learning by explaining that the Bubonic Plague was a major concern during the Renaissance, and the people's lives they have been studying. Explain that it was also known as the Black Death because of the black spots it produced on the skin. Have them realize that the Bubonic Plague was a terrible killer loose across Europe, and that medieval medicine had nothing to combat it. During the role-play, the students will be medical examiners, from the London Board of Health. Explain to the students that it is their responsibility to take notes during the scenes so they can help figure out the cause of this deadly disease. Remind them that when taking notes, to simply write the main points.

3. Assign parts and read the role-play (see attached).

4. Explain to the class that they should remain in their seats, taking notes, until it is time for their case. They should also listen while others are speaking. Explain that when it is their turn to speak, they should project their voice and read clearly.

5. When the role-play is complete, instruct the students not to talk about the role-play. Have students go through their notes individually, and hypothesize what the cause of the Bubonic Plague was.

6. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4. Have each group discuss the hypotheses developed in #5. Then, have each group come to a consensus, and write one paragraph stating what the cause was and details that support their conclusion. The students are free to ask any of the characters questions, to clarify what has been said.

7. When the groups are finished, conduct a class discussion. Ask each of the groups to share their conclusions. Give ample time for this discussion. Then share the following:

In the late fall of 1665, the death rate from the plague in London declined abruptly. People, who had evacuated the city, began to return. By 1750, the Bubonic Plague had gradually faded out in Western Europe. For the next hundred years, very few cases of the plague were reported. However, in 1894, there was a new outbreak in China. But medical science had made many advances since the time of the Black Death in London. As a result, Louis Pastuer discovered that the source of the disease was the fleas, often found on rats. Therefore, the transmission of the Bubonic Plague was from fleas to humans.


Assessment: Collect the written hypothesis as the evaluation. Check for understanding. Did they support their hypothesis with information from the role-play? Accept reasonable answers such as the following: rats, fleas, the fleas on the meat, animals, and person to person.


Sources: Giblin, James Cross. When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS. Harper Collins Publishers (1995)_ 46-50.

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Narrator: The Plague is a disease caused by bacteria that infects the whole body. The bacteria multiply in the blood stream and lymph nodes. It travels to the liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs and brain. The first day the victim is infected they usually have headaches and feel weak and tired. By the 3rd day they are staggering and their lymph nodes swell to the size of hen's eggs! By the 5th day victim's heart beats quickly as it pumps blood through swollen tissues. The nervous system begins to collapse and they experience severe pain in the movement of their arms and legs. As death draws near their mouths gape open and their skin is dark from internal bleeding. In 1330 the Plague in Europe killed 25 million people. If it weren't for scientist, Louis Pasteur, many more would have been killed when the Bubonic Plague broke out in China in the late 1800's. Let's see if you can come up with the same solution he did. The following cases will be clues to help you solve the mystery of the Black Death.



John Overhill: (state your name) I have been a merchant for 17 years. I have a beautiful wife, Margo, and 4 exquisite children who I love dearly. I have always been healthy and active until recently. I have worked with many customers in my years; however, most recently, I have been interacting with a butcher who sells meat to my market.

Margo: My name is Margo. My husband, John has been ill for the past 4 days. I'm worried sick that he might have contracted that nasty Plague. His skin has darkened, shriveled and lost its elasticity. He really isn't as old as he looks. He's the only one in our family who is sick. The only thing it could be is (hesitatingly) ...the Plague. It must have been from that dirty butcher!




Sarah: (Mourning) My poor Joseph died at such an early age of 18. He was making ends meet for our family as a delivery boy. He was so friendly; he would often share his meager lunch with the homeless at Town Square. Now, Town Square is filled with dead bodies (crying) ... Everywhere! Shortly after delivering meat to wealthy hones in Marston Court, he felt ill and died within a few days. Everyone thinks meat from Butch's Meats is infected with the Plague. But, Joseph never ate the meat there; he hates meat. I don't know how he got it!




Narrator: The following comments are journal entries from 2 brothers who died yesterday.

Journal Entry #1: I feel so sick... like I'm going to die. My whole body aches and I have this massive bump on my leg. When I first got it I thought it was a spider bite, but it has grown at such a rapid rate. I don't think I have much time left. I'm pretty sure it's what little Joseph had... I did go visit the same house he did.

Journal Entry #2: My illness has progressively gotten worse. I don't know how me and my bro'got it. We took precautions that we had hear through the grape vine. We didn't bathe very often, that way our pores didn't open to let the fumes in. We also kept flowers in our pockets to smell so we wouldn't breathe the fumes in. I guess it happens to the best of us. I know, maybe we got it from Mom. She does live next to that dirty butcher who was accused of getting that merchant sick. But, I'm too tired to worry about that now.



Narrator: The next to speak to you will be the mayor of this town, as he addresses the Council of Alderman.

Mayor: Council, we have a huge problem on our hands. I just got the Board of Health Review back. Last month, we decided to order all the dogs and cats of the towns to be killed. We thought they were the source of the Bubonic Plague. Gentlemen, we were wrong. The numbers of deaths have increased this past month. We thought killing the dogs and cats would solve the problem, but the only result we got was 40,000 fewer dogs and 5 times fewer cats. We must do something!

Council Member #1: I agree. Something else needs to be done. Town Square is constantly full of sick people, and now it is infested with rats. There was even a crowd of people at 10 p.m. last night on my way home. All the people were talking about how they don't know who or what to trust. I'm beginning to wonder the same thing.

Council Member #2: Definitely. So many people have died that there is a serious labor shortage. Workers are demanding higher wages and the commoners are revolting. Shopkeepers are going bankrupt for lack of customers. They are closing their shops to become drivers of the dead carts that carry bodies of the plague victims to the cemetery. All day long the carts rumble through the city streets while the drivers shout, "Bring out your dead!" How will the town ever survive like this?

Mayor: Gentlemen, gentlemen, settle down. Do we have an update from the Board of Health`?

Council Member #3: Yes, your Lord. Since the dogs and cats have been eliminated from the possible list of causes of the Plague, we have come up with a new conclusion. The Bubonic Plague is believed to be transmitted from person to person. This, therefore, explains the reason it is so contagious.

Mayor: So it is. We must take action immediately. As soon as one is diagnosed with the plague, a 40-day quarantine will be placed on the house. We must warn the townspeople without delay!

Council Member #4: To let people know to stay away from the infected house, a red cross should be painted above the door. And, we should post guards outside so no one is allowed to enter.

Mayor: Fine work, my dear council. We will stop this plague once and for all!




Narrator: The next character is Butch. He is the butcher that sold meat to John Overhill's market.

Butch: (from Butch's Meats) Mr. Inspector Sir, I got all this here meat straight from the farm. I ain't trustin' any other way for my dead grandma's life! Them rich folk think I'm a dirty of butcher. I may have been accused of havin' rats runnin' around here, but that ain't no different than anywhere else in town. There may be a little dirt on the floor and a few fleas runnin' around but I ain't never sold no bad meat.

Inspector: I'm not accusing you of anything, Butch. I'm just trying to figure some things out. So, how have you been feeling lately?

Butch: Up until yesterday, I was feeling great. Yesterday, I did have the darndest headache, but thought I was just tired. Today, I'm feeling real weak. Must be comin' down with a cold, `cause this here gland in my neck is sure a swellin'. What're ya' tryin' to get at anyways?

Inspector: Oh ...nothing. Just be expecting someone to come and get these nasty rats out of here. We'll be watching you.




Narrator: Two weeks after the Mayor proclaimed that houses would be quarantined, it was reported that a small girl was snuck out of a quarantined house. Neither her or the family she stayed with got the plague. Word of this got out, and the town went crazy. A riot nearly broke out in the center of Town Square.


Bertha Bradley: For those of you who don't know me, I am Bertha Bradley. I am the grandmother of young Rose. As most of you know, her mother has been very ill with this horrible epidemic. Rose had been cooped up in her tiny one bedroom home. Her mother did not want Rose to get sick, so her and her husband snuck her by the guard and over to my home, in a new change of clothes. At first, I was worried we would all contract the disease. But, I too wanted to save my granddaughter from the horrible dredgery of being cooped up in that little house. So, we snuck her out, knowing we might also contract the disease. Well, it has been 4 days since then and all of us are healthy and well.


Town's Person #1: (Angrily) Maybe that Mayor was wrong again! I say we get rid of him, instead of locking our families inside. That's inhumane!

Town's Person #2: Yea! What's he going to do next? Kill us, like he did our dogs and cats'?

Town's Person #3: I just have one question. What would (sarcastically) Lord Mayor do if a member of his family contracted the disease? Would he lock himself in his house? Or, is he to good to have the Black Death? He thinks it's some "poor man's" disease. Well, he's wrong!

Security Guard: All right, All right. Break it up, before I have to chase you off with my stick. I've heard about enough of your pathetic threats. That's it, get out of here.




Bradley: Hello, my name is Bradley and I live in the small apartments around town square with the rest of the towns' poverty. This past week has been the worst. I am feeling so queasy. I hate being sick. We don't have much and there isn't much to be done, when us poor folk get sick. I wonder if I am getting the same disease that is making everyone around here drop off like flies. I wish the mayor would do something about our little apartments. They are so small and crowded. There are flea-infested rats running all over the place. No wonder this place is disease infested. One person gets sick around here and it is like an epidemic. We all get it. There is no escaping.




Rodney: Yo, wuz up? My name be Rodney, but my gang calls me Rod. You can call me whatever, I have been called just about everything. Anyhow, here's what's going down. So what, I stole that lousy sausage from the butcher shop yesterday. It sure tasted good, ok. I got my punishment. I feel like a dead cat that just got smashed and left in the gutter to rot. I wish that officer would get off my back, being this sick is punishment enough.




Billy: Yo, what is goin' down? I'll tell ya what is going down with me, the man Billy. That dirty beast, Rodney, gave me a bloody lip. All I was trying to do was get a piece of that sausage. It wasn't really his anyway. He stole it. I thought all us stuck together. Whatever! Good thing that water pump on Town Square was nearby, else I wouldn't have had anywheres to wash off my lip.



CASE #10

Sprayer: I'm the town's only rodent sprayer. Not for long. I have got to get some help. I have been working non-stop for the past month. It breaks my heart to see people dying left and right. Fortunately, I keep myself protected in clothing that allows nothing to touch me. Well, guess the next stop is to head to Butch's Meat shop. Normally, I would respond immediately to the Inspector's request. However, this is the first moment I've had. I hope he doesn't find out that I came 3 days after he called me. (As he enters the shop, he screams) Oh no! (He runs over to the dead butcher) He's dead!


Narrator: A few hours later, after the butcher's body was removed, the sprayer and inspector returned to the scene. It is your job to conclude what they found and what the carrier of the Bubonic Plague was.


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