Essay Assignment: Due Friday Week One, Term Two

You may email me a copy of this essay at

The Introductory PowerPoint

The Vikings

Supporting notes for the Medieval Research Practice Assignment

Focus Questions and Historical Ideas
Focus Questions and Historical Ideas – why they are they so important?
What is a Focus Question?
  • A Focus Question is a ‘big’ question your presentation will answer. Anyone who sees your PowerPoint presentation should be able to answer the question with confidence.
Why do we need to have TWO Focus Questions?
  • Most PowerPoint’s contain a lot of information. As you know from class it is possible to answer 30 or 40 ‘small’ questions when watching a single PowerPoint (especially in History!). A FOCUS QUESTION usually looks at the BIG PICTURE. You are only expected to address two ‘big ideas’ in your presentation.
So what does a good Focus Question look like?
  • A good Focus Question should start with a Higher Order Thinking prompt from Bloom’s Taxonomy. The Focus Question should need to be answered in some depth. Questions which start with the following phrases usually result in stronger research projects and presentations:
    • o “Explain why…”
    • o “Assess the impact of…”
    • o “Explain the causes of…”
Examples for the PowerPoint you saw in the introduction might include:
  • o Explain why Europeans felt insecure in the 900s.
  • o Analyse the reasons the Pope sent Knights on the first Crusade.
  • o Assess the impact of the Black Death on the life of peasants in Europe.
In that case, what does a weak Focus Question look like?
  • If you can answer the question by writing a short answer or a list of facts then the chances are the Focus Question is very poor. This type of question will usually result in your research hitting a ‘dead-end’ and a sense of confusion about where to go next.
  • Examples of these questions include:
    • o Describe the different parts of a castle.
    • o Identify the main parts of a Knight’s armour.
    • You might need to include information like this but it should always be related to a big question
Why do we need to write our own Focus Questions?
  • Because that is what researchers do.
I have no idea where to begin! – how do I write my Focus Questions?
It might help to follow these guidelines – and always ask your teacher if you feel you are struggling!
  1. 1. Pick an aspect of Medieval Life that you are interested in. The more you are interested in the topic the better the odds of producing some interesting questions.
  2. 2. If you can think of any aspects of the topic you MIGHT want to learn more about you could consider writing these questions down now. Most people will not have great questions at this early stage!
  3. 3. Start your preliminary research. As you are researching your topic DON’T just let your eyes skate over the text – engage your brain. You should be thinking like a History student at this point and asking yourself questions such as:
    1. a. WHY was this aspect so important to the medieval world?
    2. b. WHY did this aspect change so little over the Medieval Period? (what did it do well?)
    3. c. WHY did this aspect change so dramatically? (was it caused by external events..).
    4. 4. Discuss your early questions with your teacher and listen to their feedback.
    5. 5. Continue your research with a focus on these questions (hence – Focus Questions!). Good Focus Questions should begin to change HOW and WHAT you research.
    6. 6. Find as much evidence as possible to support the answers you are developing. If sources offer very different explanations it would be useful to consider why this might be the case.
Historical Ideas
What is an ‘Historical Idea’?
  • An Historical Idea is a general observation about a period that results from the evidence you have gathered. To put it simply, a historical idea is a generalisation about the things that were MOST important in the period of time you were looking at. You can usually identify several when investigating your topic.
Why are they important?
  • History students need to go beyond just describing a period of time (known as the narrative - or storytelling approach) and start to ask the ‘Big Questions’. The skill of asking these ‘Big Questions’ is why History graduates often end up becoming lawyers, politicians and journalists (as well as Historians!). The ‘Big Question’ usually identifies a ‘Big Idea’ to investigate.
How do we relate the examples of Historical Ideas to our assignments?
  • Follow these steps and ask your teacher for guidance.

  1. 1. Look at the list of Historical Ideas before you begin your research.
  2. 2. As you research your topic refer to the list to see which of the ideas seem to be particularly relevant.

  1. 3. Use these Historical ideas to make your Focus Questions stronger.
  2. 4. Organise your final presentation around your Focus Questions and Historical ideas.
Examples of HOW Historical ideas link to Focus Questions and the final presentation
Using the introductory PowerPoint as an example
Some of the Historical Ideas from the PowerPoint
These ideas identify some of the key themes of the PowerPoint.
  1. 1. Conflict (with Vikings, Magyars and the Islamic Invasion)
  2. 2. Religion (a crucial aspect of European identity and the basis of the church’s power)
  3. 3. Rivalry (between Knights for land disrupted trade and led to violence throughout Europe)
Using these ideas to make our Focus Questions stronger
  1. 1. Explain why conflict with the Vikings, Magyars and the Islamic Empire led to the development of the Feudal System.
  2. 2. Explain why religion played a significant role in shaping the identity of Medieval Europeans.
  3. 3. Explain why rivalry between Knights had a negative impact on the people of Medieval Europe.
Good Focus Questions = Clear Historical Ideas
  1. 1.Conflict with the Vikings, Magyars and Islamic Empire led to the development of the Feudal System”.
  2. 2. “The Christian Religion played a significant role in shaping the identity of Western Europeans after the fall of Rome”.
  3. 3.Rivalry between Knights for land had a negative impact on the people of Medieval Europe”
Using these Historical Ideas in your final presentation – Do’s and Don’ts
  • Ramble through a detailed description of your event without answering any Focus Questions.
  • Leave out Historical Ideas OR only use the basic words (Conflict!, Rivalry!) without context.
  • Limit your presentation to only ONE idea.
  • Use sweeping generalisations without any supporting evidence.
  • Use clear Focus Questions and answer them in depth.
  • Use the Historical Ideas in context.
  • Include a range of Historical Ideas in your questions and your final presentation.
  • Use a wide range of evidence to support your generalisations.



The Black Death

The causes of the plague

Powerpoint used in class

European Trade in the 13th and 14th Century

Extent of the Mongol Empire
external image mongol_empire_history.jpg

The Siege of Kaffa and the deliberate passing of the Plague to European traders!

Between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death raged through Medieval Europe. Historians and biologists have traced the origins of this deadly pandemic to the remote steppes of Central Asia. Plague had certainly erupted there by 1331 but how exactly did it spread from East to West?
After ravaging Central Asia, the plague descended on China, India and Persia. In China alone, the plague killed around half of the human population. Despite such destruction, commercial activities continued unabated. This meant that the traders, their vessels and the rats aboard became the agents of infection. As they travelled along the established trade routes of the medieval world, they unwittingly carried the plague with them.
The Golden Horde
It is with little wonder then that the plague continued to spread, reaching Southern Russia sometime between 1345 and 1346. Here lay the Mongol-ruled territory known as the Golden Horde, comprising much of Eastern Europe and bordering the Black Sea on the south. According to the Arab writer, Ibn al-Wardi, the Black Death devastated many of the towns and villages throughout the Golden Horde, especially during October and November of 1346. From here, he says, it spread to the Crimea and Byzantium
For several years, the Mongols had allowed a group of merchants from Genoa to control Kaffa, a bustling seaport on the Crimean Peninsula. This was highly advantageous for the Mongols as it provided a direct link to Italy’s largest commercial centre and encouraged trade across all corners of their vast empire. Tensions and disagreements, however, were a common feature of this commercial relationship, arising primarily from their religious differences; the Italians were devoutly Christian and the Mongols had been practising Muslims since the 1200s.

In 1343, in the Crimean town of Tana, these tensions were transformed into violence after a fight between locals and Italians left one Muslim dead. Faced with the threat of execution by the Mongols, the Italians fled the city and headed to Kaffa. Here they were given sanctuary but it was not long before the Mongols caught up with them. What the Mongols had not anticipated, however, was that the people of Kaffa would refuse to let them in. In the face of such insolence, the Mongols had only one choice – they would lay siege to the city.
‘This Pestilential Disease’
In 1345-6, while laying siege to the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army became infected with the Black Death. Gabriele de’ Mussi tells us what happened next:

“Whereupon the Tartars (Mongols), worn out by this pestilential disease, and falling on all sides as if thunderstruck, and seeing that they were perishing hopelessly, ordered the corpses to be placed upon their engines and thrown into the city of Kaffa. Accordingly were the bodies of the dead hurled over the walls, so that the Christians were not able to hide or protect themselves from this danger, although they carried away as many as possible and threw them into the sea.”
Many modern scholars have argued that the Black Death could not have spread through contact with infected corpses. Instead, they argue that rats carrying Yersinia Pestis were somehow able to enter the city. Either way, the siege of Kaffa was to prove fatal for these Italian merchants – and for the rest of Western Europe.
In the summer of 1347, the Italian merchants headed to their ships and the fled the city of Kaffa. En route, however, the Italians stopped at Constantinople, inadvertently infecting the city. Thousands of people were killed, including Andronikos, the son of the Greek Emperor, John VI Cantacuzenos. Those who were able fled the city, many not realising that they were already infected. By the autumn, the western coast of Asia Minor was experiencing the full force of the Black Death and it would not be long before returned home to infect their native Italy.

Eyewitness Account of the plague:

A challenging but interesting description of the Black Death and Great Famine

Eyewitness Account of the plague: