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Big Era Five: Landscape Unit 5.5

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Calamities and Recoveries:
1300 - 1500 CE

Why This Unit?

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 fifteenth 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.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Identify calamities and recoveries based on “point of view.”

2. Describe the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in China.

3. Predict effects of increased contact between East Asia and Europe.

4. Assess the impact of climatic change on European agriculture and population in the early fourteenth century.

5. Identify major effects of the Black Death and draw evidence from primary source documents to infer how people across Afroeurasia responded to the Black Death.

6. Use quantitative data to construct a graph that illustrates demographic change in Afroeurasia.

7. Explain the relationship between events of the period and demographic trends.

8. Assess the impact of Timur's conquests on Asia, and create a map to illustrate the geographic extent of Timur's empire.

9. Evaluate the importance of the Bosporus and Dardanelles as both a link and a barrier between Europe and Asia.

10. Detect and evaluate bias in primary source documents.

11. Use a primary source document to construct a neutral account of the conquest/liberation of Constantinople.

12. Use historical evidence to construct a hypothesis concerning elements of Europe's recovery from the calamities of this period.

Time and Materials

This unit should take 5 to 7 class periods, depending on the length of the class, the grade level/abilities of the students, and whether or not teachers choose to teach all parts of each lesson.


  • Atlases
  • Colored pencils
  • Overhead projector (optional)
  • Rulers and graph paper, or computers and graphing software

Table of Contents

Why This Unit?


Unit Objectives


Time and Materials




The Historical Context


This Unit in the Big Era Timeline




Lesson One: A Brilliant Recovery


Lesson Two: Double Trouble


Lesson Three: Whirlwind


Lesson Four: Historical Bias: The Fall of Constantinople


Lesson Five: Europe Recovers




This Unit and the Three Essential Questions


This Unit and the Seven Key Themes


This Unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards and to Textbooks


Conceptual Links to Other Teaching Units


Complete Teaching Unit in PDF Format


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