There have been points in history when societies faced calamities so great there seemed no hope of recovery. But time and again, humans have proven their resilience and adaptability in the face of such challenges. This unit examines striking examples of this human capability as it focuses on a series of devastating calamities that befell large parts of Afroeurasia in the fourteenth and fifteenths centuries and the remarkable recoveries that followed.
The perceived nature of a calamity and the human response to it depend on point of view. As Ambrose Bierce said, "Calamity is of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others." Point of view is an important element of historical understanding and is therefore another focus of this unit.
The fall of the Mongol dynasty in China at the hands of Hung Wu, the future
Ming dynasty emperor, provides the historical context for introducing concepts
of calamity, recovery, and point of view. This recovery
for the Chinese (and calamity for the Mongols) is then linked with the outbreak
and spread of infectious plague across Eurasia. The natural disasters associated
with the "Little Ice Age" are also examined. This also helps set the stage
for a study of differing accounts of the Black Death. A graphing activity examines
the demographic patterns that mark these disasters and the beginnings of recovery.
Yet another wave of disaster descended on Eurasia as the Mongol-Turkic Timur
(Tamerlane) stormed across the continent in whirlwind military campaigns. At
the same time, however, the Ming recovery continued. Partially in response
to Timur's threats, the Chinese admiral Zheng He led a spectacular series of
naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean. Students practice their mapping skills
and discover the geographic extent of these events.
The Ottoman Empire, one
of Timur's many victims, made a remarkable recovery from near destruction
to again threaten the remnants of the once mighty Byzantine Empire. Students
are challenged to interpret an emotionally charged primary source account
of the fall of Constantinople and translate it into an objective record of
that event. In a culminating activity, students investigate the myriad calamities
and their unforeseen effects on the recovery of Europe. Students
are finally asked to speculate on the possible calamites that might result
from Europe's recovery.