Blood and Buboes – The Black Death in Classrooms


By Joanna Tyler, The University of Western Australia

Joanna Tyler teaching students how to apply special effects make-up during a 'Black Death' workshop.
Joanna Tyler teaching students how to apply special effects make-up during a ‘Black Death’ workshop.

When most people think of a history classroom, they probably imagine something akin to the history of magic class in Harry Potter: an older teacher who lectures students to the point of boredom, with piles of books stacked about the place and a few diligent students scratching down every fact and figure that is mentioned. History in schools has always been strongly associated with the cognitive domain. Like the other core subjects in our curriculum it is considered an academic subject, not an emotive one. The affective domain, in contrast, has always been at home in the performing arts – the interactive, ‘fun’ subjects where students are less likely to be stuck behind a desk. Ironically, one of the key components of the Western Australian curriculum for history is empathy. Students are expected to ‘develop their historical understanding through key concepts, including evidence, continuity and chance, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability’.[1]

This is not something that is easy to achieve or assess in a class that is generally recognised as a combination of dusty books and long lectures. It is equally hindered by the simple fact that teachers are busy. While they may have dreams of running beautifully resourced, interactive classes, realistically teachers are underfunded, overworked and therefore desperate to embrace any new resource or skill that might assist in their student’s engagement and learning.

When I began working as an Education and Outreach Officer with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, I was determined to find a way to bridge this gap. I wanted to use my background as a drama teacher to bring the emotionally engaging, practical lessons of the drama classroom into history lessons. Combining special effects (SFX) makeup with my adoration of disgusting, death and disease based history provided the answer.

The Year 8 humanities curriculum requires students to address medieval history and the fourteenth-century outbreak of the Black Death in Europe. This period in history elicits an array of strong emotional responses, so it was an obvious choice for facilitating student engagement through the affective domain.  In addition to a content workshop that addresses the ‘Knowledge and Understanding’ aspects of the curriculum, I have now spent just over a year running SFX makeup workshops at schools across Western Australia. The SFX makeup workshop makes students look like they are manifesting symptoms of the bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plagues. As I say to students, this is probably one of the only times in their lives when they will want to look horrible!

The SFX workshops are not intended to replace other forms of learning or the contextual knowledge that is imperative to the history curriculum. They are intended to enhance them, to add a means of embracing the affective domain and allow students to have an emotional, empathic experience of history. By using SFX makeup to create realistic symptoms, students can create a narrative about people from the past in their minds, stirring emotions that are connected to lives lived in the past and to their own experiences in the present.

‘A narrative framework makes the other person more salient cognitively and emotionally’.[2] During the SFX workshops, the ‘other person’ in the context of the fourteenth-century Black Death is not necessarily someone of a particular social status or religion. It is simply a person who experienced extreme illness. When students can see how graphic the symptoms of the Black Death were, and can relate to someone in the past through their own experiences of what it is like to be sick, they are better able to understand and contextualise the historical events they have learnt about in class. Emotions motivate actions, so by connecting to emotions of the past students can start to understand the impetus behind past actions.

By combining a practical task that creates empathy with other aspects of learning, students become better able to identify with the past.  They are able to consider the impact of events on real people with real concerns, who are not so different to themselves.[3] In addition to fostering empathy for past events, the hands on nature of the SFX lesson engages students students and encourages them to positively associate their learning with the chance to exercise creativity and independence. Their own personal histories of emotions alter their perceptions of school experiences.


Student engagement and interest lies at the heart of this work, and in these classes you can see this engagement in their emotions – it is visible and tangible. The usually ‘naughty’ students tell people to shut up so that they can hear all of the instructions about how to apply the makeup. Students call the teacher over to double check their work because they’re so keen to get it ‘right’. Teachers partner with students who don’t have someone to work with – and these students wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity rather than get embarrassed because they don’t want to miss out on the chance to drip fake blood down someone’s face.

There are so many methods and theories thrown around in the teaching world, and so many different models that schools can choose to follow and use to train their teachers. But at the end of the day, any teacher will tell you that the majority of students like doingthings. They want to be hands on, to make something that they can’t achieve with just pen and paper. Even when I teach top level academically gifted students at a school – generally identified as the children who like doing school work – I am yet to receive a single complaint about them (literally) getting their hands dirty.

The SFX workshops also allow students to experience the history of emotions as the truly interdisciplinary field that it is, within a secondary education context. Studying the Black Death and creating its symptoms incorporates aspects of the science, HASS and drama curriculums and encourages students to think across all of these disciplines. It is certainly not often that you’d have students asking how the immune systems works and how they can pursue a career as a makeup artist in a history class! New possibilities  open before their eyes and they can see beyond what they learn at school to the social world they are part of.

Ultimately, the workshop creates layers of emotional experiences for students. Rather than reading facts in books, they have the opportunity to feel joy, satisfaction or frustration at what they are creating, disgust at the appearance of the plague symptoms and an appreciation for the experiences of people in fourteenth-century Europe.

Joanna Tyler is an Education and Outreach Officer with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia (UWA). Joanna is an experienced drama and dance teacher, and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts at UWA majoring in medieval and early modern history.


[1]Year 8 Syllabus Description in the Western Australian Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum Outline, School Curriculum and Standards Authority. Available from:

[2]J. Trzebinski, ‘Narratives and Understanding Other People’,Research in Drama Education10. 1 (2005), 24.

[3]T. De Leur, C. Van Boxal, A. Wilschut, ‘‘I saw angry people and broken statues’: Historical Empathy in Secondary History Education’, British Journal of Educational Studies65.3 (2017), 334.

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