Active Learning on

Black Death comes to Allton


One of the advantages of active learning, especially role-plays or simulations, is that students can gain a depth of understanding that is often difficult to achieve through textbooks or other more “objective” methods. It’s something to do with activity itself, something to do with identification with the person you play, something to do with the enhanced concentration levels that are achieved doing something out of the ordinary. So why try something different with the Black Death which, after all, has plenty of good, old-fashioned classroom interest in the rats, buboes, vile treatments etc etc. Well, there’s a lot more to the Black Death than simply a horror story. It had a profound impact on individuals, ‘not just’ life and death but transforming expectations in different ways across different classes. The activity can therefore help develop students’ understanding of consequence as well as of the events themselves. The activity puts students into roles as people in the fictional village of Allton in 1347 and first of all reveals, through role-card scripted conversations, which of the villagers are optimistic and which are pessimistic about the future. Then we fast-forward to 1349 to see who has survived and how events have transformed the fortunes of the lord, freemen and villeins as individuals.

Small detail from the Allton reconstruction drawing for 1347This activity, while free-standing, is strongly linked to material in the new SHP Year 7 textbook and CD to be published early in 2008 for the new National Curriculum KS3 PoS. Both book and CD contain full spread reconstructions of the village of Allton and villagers (enabling students to follow the fortunes of individuals) and then provide the resources for students to undertake a structured story-telling activity, focussing on the arrival of the pestilence in the village, their ideas about its causes, how they tried to prevent and heal the disease and, finally, how it has affected lives.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying cards can be downloaded:

This activity is based on both the ’Role play’ and the ’Communities’ style of models:


As a result of this activity students will have developed an understanding of:

  • the scale of the impact of the Black Death
  • the variety of ways that the Black Death changed lives, to positive and negative consequences and to short-term and long-term consequences.
  • how the Black Death created some of the frustrations that led to the 1381 Revolt and also led to improvements in living standards for many ordinary people in the 1400s.

Setting Up

You’ll need plenty of space to create:

  • An optimism-pessimism ‘washing line’ down the centre of the room
  • Villagers to move around and form groups and act out their structured conversations. 
  • The village churchyard

1. Create tabards for each person in 1347 - 21 in total.

Colour code the three social groups e.g.

  • blue for lord and his family (4 roles)
  • green for freemen, (8 roles)
  • brown for villeins (9 roles )

You’ll find a list of the names of the villagers and who died at the bottom of this page [ see list of villagers  ]

2. Prepare role cards as provided below:

a) 1347 cards – one for each person

b) 1349 cards – place each card in an individual envelope with the role-name written on the outside. Those who died have an RIP card in the envelope – see list at end for those who died.

Click here for 1347 cards ]

Click here for 1349 cards ]

3. Create ‘Optimism’ and ‘Pessimism’ notices for each end of a ‘washing line’ or continuum.

For guidance on using this washing line approach see the guidance on this site.

4. Record sheets for plotting where the villagers are on the continuum. These are to be used by pupils not taking roles.

The Activity

1. Distribute tabards to individuals. You’ll need to think carefully about who you want to take roles and who you might want to have sitting out recording events.

Explain to students that they are the villagers of Allton in the year 1347 and we’re going to find out which of them are doing well and feeling prosperous and those who are struggling and feeling poor and pessimistic about the future.

Don’t explain the different colours of tabards at this stage.

2. Give out 1347 role cards to individuals. Ask them to form a group with the others named on their card and then put together their sentences to make a conversation.

[This isn’t a free-form conversation – each person has a sentence and, if they’re put in the right order, they create a conversation.]

They have a couple of minutes to practice (go round and listen to each group practice if you can).

3. Take each group in turn. Ask each group to act out their conversation and then get the rest of class to decide where this group (or individuals within it) go on the optimism/pessimism line. Move them to stand on the line in the agreed place.

Pupils who don’t have roles have record sheets, plotting where the others are on the continuum.

4. After all the groups have acted out their conversations, everyone should be on the continuum, scattered along its length. This should reveal that the villeins are mostly at the optimistic end (expecting freedom, not so worried about low wages) and the freemen are mixed – some very pessimistic and others more optimistic, depending how much land they have. The lord is doing quite well – using the situation in his favour. This is when you can explain the different coloured tabards – it makes the point about the circumstances of the different groups much clearer.

At this stage it may be helpful to step away from the physical activity to get pupils to note down, as individuals or in groups, who they are and how they view their situation in 1347. This is essentially consolidating their feelings and identification with their role but can also include an ‘I’m better off than x but worse off than y’ comparative element. [In time this can be done with the help of the artwork in the new SHP book and CD]. This is where the work of the pupils with the record sheets comes in useful as their notes on the sheet act as a reminder. This also acts as an aide-memoire if you follow up with a story-telling activity with students in their roles as villagers.

Small detail from the Allton reconstruction drawing for 13495. Now it’s time to move forward to 1349 and put the pupils back into their tabards and into role as villagers. It’s up to you how long you spend building in information about the arrival of the Black Death - you can tell about the first news of the pestilence and ask questions about what the villagers might do and how they might try to stop this pestilence spreading. Sugar mice make good props to have appear on the floor as rats but don’t blame them!

However the key moment is when you ask the villagers to collect their individual 1349 envelope – do this in groups to avoid a crush - with Lord’s family first, then freemen, then villeins.

About half the group will find an RIP card in their envelope. They should take off their tabards and lay them in an area designated as the churchyard, creating a mini-graveyard. These pupils now sit and watch but it will help them later if each one is asked to focus on one of their friends amongst the survivors. One needs recycling as young Adam Morell.

The survivors read the information on their role cards and form new groups and practice their new conversation.

6. Now repeat the earlier conversation and continuum activity – but now a different pattern emerges. The villeins are more pessimistic than optimistic because their chances of freedom have receded and the freemen have moved towards the optimism end.

Again have pupils recording the positions of the villagers on the sheet and use arrows to show who’s moved where.

The Activity – an Alternative Version

The approach described above might not suit your class for a variety of reasons. You may not have the space required or you may have reservations about the nature of the activity in terms of class discipline and organization – i.e. you may want to keep them in their seats and on-task in a more structured way. This doesn’t mean abandoning the core activity, just approaching it in a different way, as the following outline suggests:

1. Provide each pupil or pair of pupils with an A4 paper version of the 1347 Optimism-Pessimism washing line described above. Their task will be to mark on it the position of each person in the village. You’ll need to decide in advance whether you want them to record EITHER the characters’ initials or names and whether each is a villein, freeman or member of the lord’s family OR just V, F or L for each person. The latter gives a clearer pattern but makes it harder to chart individuals easily.

2. Give the role cards out to groups in their seats and ask the groups to rehearse their brief conversation. Give them a time limit (e.g. two minutes) and count it down.

3. Call one group out and ask the pupils to perform their conversation. Work with the class to mark each person on the washing line, using your board to model the first one or two.

4. Now repeat for the other groups until the washing line is complete and you can discuss the pattern of F, V and L. This approach will have required pupils to focus on each group and record their position – which is likely to have helped your class management.

5. Now continue as your scheme of work suggests – you may wish to halt there and look in more detail at the arrival of the Black Death, its symptoms and reactions before moving on to repeat the activity for 1349, again only having one group on their feet at a time and everyone recording positions on a fresh A4 washing line.

6. Now move into debriefing, looking at patterns etc as described in debriefing below.


a) Look at the patterns of the groups on the optimism/pessimism washing line – lord, freemen and villeins. How has BD affected each group?

Ask questions of individuals to focus on the detail in the conversations:

Lord – are you going to free the villeins or keep them as workers? Why?

Freemen – Why are you being paid higher wages? What will you do with the money?

Villeins – What had you hoped to get before the Black Death? Why do you want this freedom and why won’t the lord give you your freedom?

b) Get individuals to tell their stories and focus on the diversity and complexity of feelings and on individuals’ complex responses to events around them.

e.g. Henry Brewer’s wife has died but now he has the chance to grow wealthy

Stephen Cakebread is the new steward, an opportunity he wouldn’t have had before.

Adam Smith has survived but is angry that there’s no chance of freedom.

c) Look ahead, linking the BD into the wider story of social change over time.

ask the villeins what they want in the future – freedom and how they feel about being deprived of that opportunity. If they had the chance to join a protest to win their freedom, would they join in?

ask the freemen what they will spend their higher wages on – with a little prompting (maybe parallels today) they should produce a list which equates to many of the improvements in everyday life that developed in the 1400s – better diet, housing, more fashionable, clothing – even more children being sent to school!

d) From b and c you can explore explicitly the concept of consequences – what different kinds of consequences can be identified, over how long a period do the results last etc.

e) Move into story-telling – how I survived the Black Death. All pupils will need to be a survivor but they can tell their story – not just focussing on disease, possible treatments and death but how they felt before and afterwards, on the impact of the pestilence on their village and their friends.


  1. How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back!)
  2. How did tackling the Black Death through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the range of consequences?
  3. How will you relate the Black Death to the rest of your KS3 History course? How can you avoid pupils seeing it as a one-off event and instead see it as a pivotal moment in History with long-term consequences?

Allton Community

This is a fictional community - though all the names can be found in the Wakefield court rolls in 1300s.

Lord and Family

  • Sir John Lovell (died)
  • Lady Alice Lovell
  • Ralph Lovell (died)
  • Robert Lovell


  • Walter the Steward (died)
  • Thomas Driver (died)
  • Stephen Cakebread
  • Margery Morell
  • John Morell (died)
  • Adam Morell (a child – no part in conversation in 47 but does have in 49)
  • Henry Brewer
  • Alice Brewer (died)
  • Father William (priest)


  • Adam Smith
  • Edith Smith
  • Eleanor Shepherd (died)
  • Beatrix Carter (died)
  • Richard Carter
  • John Baker
  • Agnes Baker (died)
  • John Newton (died)
  • Mathilda Legg (died)

User Feedback

From Heidi Sutcliffe

I carried out the Black Death activity that you used in the session on Wednesday. it worked really well and the students responded really well. it also really highlighted the ability of some pupils to place themselves on the continuum and justify their choice with examples, reason and comparison, whist other pupils found that really hard. This is what I think I'm going to focus on developing especially in that class and I'm sure this will impact on their levels (or sub levels! although don't get me started on what nonsense that is) their quality of writing and their ability to cope with the complex challenges they will be facing throughout key stage 3 and hopefully key stage 4

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity

Alternative Version



Allton Community

User Feedback