Tracing the Shared Paths of Disease and Trade in the Medieval World
Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman and Sara Chavarria

Time: 3 classes
Preparation Time: 1 hour to read lesson and make copies of materials

Trade Route Matrix - Teacher version

Trace Route Matrix - Student version

List of goods exported from different regions of the Medieval world

Map of Medieval world trade cities
Topographical map of the world

This lesson will show the students how even people living in Medieval times were not isolated in complete cultural vacuums. The pace of life may have been slower and the access to foreign goods less, but trade routes still connected Africa, Asia, and Europe. From an environmental health standpoint this is a significant factor in the spread of disease. Students will use maps, charts, and information already learned in their science and history classes to find out where specific goods used in Medieval times were made, mined, grown, etc. and to trace the routes that they took when traded. At the same time they will propose what diseases might have traveled along those routes and how they were transmitted.

Purpose – This is the Explore Lesson. Students will use various sources of information, including non-written ones, to solve the problem of how people in the Medieval world gained access to goods not indigenous to their locality and propose how diseases shared those paths.

Students will be able to:
1. Read a map with accuracy.
2. Synthesize information from various sources, both written and visual, to create an accurate picture of one aspect of Medieval life.
3. Create a plausible explanation for a problem from multiple sources of information, none of which contain the exact answer.

English Education Standards
Strand 2: Comprehending Literary Text
Concept 2: Functional Text: Identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the
purpose, structures, clarity, and relevancy of functional text.
- PO 1. Synthesize information from multiple sources to solve a problem.

Teacher Background
Ability to read maps

Related and Resource Websites
http://www.cas.muohio.edu/~stevenjr/mbi111/impact111.html (History of infectious disease)
http://www.thedoctorwillseeyounow.com/articles/other/tb_10/index.shtml (A very good description of the history and biology of tuberculosis)
http://www.globalcomment.com/science&technology/article_14.asp (An extremely interesting comparison of the state of medicine in the Medieval world in Europe and the Islamic countries)
http://www.britannica.com/nobel/micro/609_90.html (All about typhus which is different from typhoid fever)



1. Take just a few minutes to review with the students the diverse areas that the foods, clothes, vehicles, furniture, and luxury items that they use daily come from. Then ask them to travel back in time mentally to the Middle Ages. What is their impression of daily life in that era? Do they think that trade was a vital part of life then? What technologies made long distance trade possible? You might need to help them connect to ideas that they learned in history this week such as trade being facilitated by different forms of transport (animal powered vehicles, water powered vehicles), people who specialized in trade such as merchants and traders, and physical networks such as roads and actual cities created to be centers of trade inland as well as port cities.

2. Next ask the students to think about the diseases that were examined in the first two weeks of science class. Which ones could have been around in the Middle Ages? Make a list with your students. Here is a possible list that your students could generate after covering the material in the first week of science: cholera, typhoid, dysentery, influenza, typhus, tuberculosis, smallpox, the Plague, schistosomiasis, and measles.

3. Now the students will break up into small groups to discover what goods were traded in the Medieval world, where these goods originated, which routes were used to transport them, and which diseases may have been spread through this type of trade by using the Trade Route Matrix that indicates which cities and goods are to be investigated. They will use the following materials provided in this lesson: a chart of which areas produced which goods, a topographical map of the world, and a map of the location of important cities of the Medieval world. Students are also encouraged to use resources that are on the Internet. Any information that the students have encountered in science and/or history classes up to this point can and should be used. As a group the students fill in the Trade Route Matrix that gives them seven cities and seven different items with which to work. They must discover the place of origin of the goods and figure out a logical route that traders would have taken to bring that good to a particular city while postulating which possible diseases also were being transmitted. For example, how did silk make its way to Venice? Then, the students need to postulate what were the possible vectors of disease involved in that particular trade activity.

4. In the final portion of the lesson (one class is suggested) go over the answers the students filled in on the Trade Route Matrix. Ask one group to show the route that they reconstructed for how a certain item was transported from point A to point B and which diseases may have been unwittingly transmitted in the process by using a large world map or an overhead of the world map given to the students to chart the routes of trade. Always ask if the class found more than one possible route or more than one disease that many have gone along for the ride. Compare the routes and the probable diseases that traveled along with the goods and/or people.

There are a number of key concepts that can be reviewed to tie up the various strings of thought in this lesson. First, we often think of the Medieval world as isolated and backwards. When we look at the vast amount of trade that was taking place we realize that this is erroneous. A wonderful array of goods was available for those who had the means to purchase them. And while the pace may have been slower than it is today, the various regions of the world were still very much in contact with each other. This meant that diseases from one area of the world could be transported to another, though the vector of their transmission might have been a mystery to the medieval physician. Ask the students to remember the reading selection from The Year of Wonders that they encountered in the first week of English for this unit. What possible diseases might have ravaged the small town that was described? Would the inhabitants of the place have understood what had hit them or have had any idea of how to combat the infection?


Embedded Assessment
Students learning in this lesson should be assessed by the quality and frequency of responses in the class discussions at the beginning and end of the lesson, by the amount of engagement in the group work, and by the quality of the written work on the Trade Routes lesson matrix.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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