The Black Death in Europe

IN THE 1300s, Florence was one of Europe’s greatest cities. It was the first to experience a violent and widespread outbreak of the Black Death. What this meant for the people of a large town can be imagined from Boccaccio’s well-known eyewitness account: “In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous…

“Which maladies seemed to set entirely at naught both the art of the physician, and the virtues of the physic. Indeed, whether it was that the disorder [defied] such treatment, or that the physicians were at fault—besides the qualified there was now a multitude…

who practised without having received the slightest tincture of medical science . . . in either case . . . almost all . . . died, and in most cases without any fever or other attendant malady. . . (23)”

People reacted differently to the coming of the plague: “Divers apprehensions and imaginations were engendered in the minds of such as were left alive; inclining almost all of them to the same harsh resolution; to wit, to shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them, thinking thereby to make each his own health secure..

“There were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much as a preservative against seizures of this kind. Wherefore, they banded together, and, disassociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick. [They] lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking very moderately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines, holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them, and diverting their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise.


“Others … maintained that to drink freely, to frequent places of public resort, and to take their pleasure with song and revel … was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil. And that which they affirmed they also put into practice, so far as they were able, resorting day and night now to this tavern, now to that, drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure, and by preference making the houses of others, as it were, their inns . . . The owners, seeing death imminent, had become as reckless of their property as of their lives; so that most of the houses were open to all comers, and no distinction observed between the stranger who presented himself and the rightful lord …

“In this extremity of our city’s sufferings and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abused and all but totally dissolved, for lack of those who should have adminis­tered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick or so hard beset for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes (24).”

Some tried to ward off the infection; others fled the city. Others “kept a middle course between them . . . living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetites, and not as recluses. They therefore walked abroad, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and dying, and the odours of drugs.

“Some again, the most sound, perhaps in judgement, as they were also the most harsh in temper, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficiency to flight. . . A multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country, as if God, in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities, would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city. . . (25)”

People avoided each other as never before: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kins­folk held aloof and never met, or but rarely. Enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women that, in the horror thereof, brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and, oftentimes, husband by wife. Nay . . . fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers …

“In consequence of which dearth of servants, and dereliction of the sick . . . it came to pass . . . that no woman, however dainty, fair or well-born, shrank, when stricken by the disease, from the ministrations of a man . . . or scrupled to expose to him every part of her body, with no more shame than if he had been a woman, submitting of necessity to that which her malady required. Where-from, perchance, there resulted in after-time some loss of modesty in such as recovered . . . (26)”

The dead were hurried to the grave without ceremony “It had been … the custom for the women that were neighbours or of kin to the deceased to gather in his house with the women that were most closely connected with him, to wail with them in common, while on the other hand his male kinsfolk and neighbours … assembled without, in front of the house, to receive the corpse; and so the dead man was borne on the shoulders of his peers, with funeral pomp of taper and dirge, to the church selected by him before his death.

“These rites, as the pestilence waxed in fury, were either in whole or in great part disused and gave way to others of a novel order. For not only did no crowd of women surround the bed of the dying, but many passed from this life unregarded, and few indeed were they to whom were accorded the lamentations and bitter tears of sorrowing relations. Nay, for the most part, their place was taken by the laugh, the jest, the festal gathering; observances which the women—domestic piety in large measure set aside—had adopted with very great advantage to their health.

“Few also there were whose bodies were attended to the church by more than ten or twelve neighbours, and those not the honourable and respected citizens, but a sort of corpse-carrier drawn from the baser ranks, who called themselves becchini and performed such offices for hire, would shoulder the bier and, with hurried steps, carry it, not to the church of the dead man’s choice, but to that which was nearest at hand, with four or six priests in front and a candle or two, or, perhaps none. Nor did the priests distress themselves with too long and solemn an office, but with the aid of the becchini hastily consigned the corpse to the first tomb which they found untenanted…

“Many died daily or nightly in the public streets. Of many others, who died at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbours, until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings; and what with their corpses and the corpses of others who died on every hand the whole place was a sepulchre (27).”

As the deaths increased, funerals became even more perfunctory:    Indifference

“It was the common practice of most of the neighbours, moved no to the dead less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter—if a porter was to be had—and to lay them round in front of the doors, where any one that made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count.

“Afterwards they would have biers brought up or, in default, planks whereon they laid them. Nor was it only once or twice that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses, at once; but [many] such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened that, as two priests bearing the cross were on their way to perform the last office for some one, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them. So that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six or eight, or sometimes more. Nor were their obsequies honoured by either tears, or lights, or crowds of mourners . . . A dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today . . . (28)”

The plague began to ravage the countryside around Florence: “As consecrated ground there was not in extent sufficient to provide tombs for the vast multitude of corpses . . . they dug for each grave­yard, as soon as it was full, a huge trench in which they laid the corpses as they arrived by hundreds at a time, piling them up as merchandise is stowed in the hold of a ship, tier upon tier, each covered with a little earth, until the trench would hold no more.

“But I spare to rehearse with minute particularity each of the woes that came upon our city, and say in brief that, harsh as was the tenor of her fortunes, the surrounding country knew no mitigation; for there . . . in sequestered villages, or on the open champaign [countryside], by the wayside, on the farm, in the home­stead; the poor, hapless husbandmen and their families, forlorn of physician’s care or servants’ tendance, perished day and night alike, not as men but rather as beasts. They too, like the citizens, abandoned all rule of life, all habit of industry, all counsel of prudence. Nay, one and all, as if expecting each day to be their last, not merely ceased to aid Nature to yield her fruit in due season . . . but left no means unused, which in­genuity could devise, to waste their accumulated store; denying shelter to their oxen, asses, sheep, goats, pigs, fowls, nay even to their dogs, man’s most faithful companions, and driving them out into the fields to roam at large amid the unsheaved, nay unreaped corn. . . (29)”

When at last the plague had passed, Boccaccio dwelt upon the losses the city had suffered: “Between March and the ensuing July, upwards of a hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of the city of Florence, which before the deadly visitation would not have been supposed to contain so many people!

“How many grand palaces, how many stately homes, how many splendid residences, once full of retainers, of lords, of ladies, were now left desolate of all, even to the meanest servant! How many families of historic fame, of vast ancestral domains and wealth proverbial, found now no scion to continue the succession! How many brave men, how many fair ladies, how many gallant youths, whom any physician, were he Galen, Hippocrates or Aesculapius himself, would have pronounced in the soundest of health, broke fast with their kinsfolk, comrades and friends in the morning, and when evening came, supped with their forefathers in the other world! (30)”

As the plague spread, other Italian cities suffered in the same way. Agnolo di Tura wrote of Siena: “Father abandoned child, wife, husband; one brother, another, for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and the sight. And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or for friendship . . . And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with huge heaps of the dead . . . And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise. And there were also many dead throughout the city who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies (31).”

The Black Death reached France within a few months of the first outbreak on the Italian mainland. It raged throughout the winter of 1348-9 in Paris. There, a community of nuns showed bravery that set them apart from most people who wished to flee the capital: “There was so great a mortality among people of both sexes, of the young rather than of the old, that it was hardly possible to bury them. In the Hôtel-Dieu at Paris, so great was the mortality that for a long time more than five hundred corpses were carted daily to the churchyard of St. Innocent to be buried. And those holy sisters, having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility, putting all honour behind their back. The greater number of these sisters, many times renewed by death, now rest in peace with Christ, as we must piously believe (32).”

Smaller French towns, too, suffered badly. One was St. Marie Sudden death Laumont in Normandy; as late as June, 1349, the King authorized the Mayor to open a new cemetery because “the mortality . . . is so marvellously great that people are dying there suddenly, as quickly as between one evening and the following morning and often quicker than that (33).”

As the plague spread into Germany and other countries, there Flagellants appeared religious fanatics, known as Flagellants; these whipped themselves in frenzy to avert God’s wrath: “Amongst them, many of both sexes were barefooted, some were in sack cloth, some covered with ashes, wailing as they walked, tearing their hair, and lashing themselves with scourges even to the point where blood was drawn (34).”

But still the plague spread. Very soon it was to be carried even further north, over the Channel, and into southern England.