The case of Florence has remained famous because of the scrupulous and moving evocation made by Boccace in the opening of his Decameron:
“Poverty, or some vague waiting for something, caused most of these people to remain at home. They hardly left their neighbourhoods, and they fell ill by thousands every day. Receiving no help, they died, it might as well be said, without remission. Some expired by day or by night in public streets; and a lot of others, dead at home, first transmitted the news of their death to their neighbours by the disgusting smell of their rotting flesh. Everything overflowed with these bodies, and the bodies of other men who were dying everywhere.”
Boccace saw his father succumb to the epidemic in 1348, as well as his mistress, Fiammetta. His eyewitness account is particularly valuable because of the precious indications that he furnishes on the contradictory reactions that the plague provoked among the populations. While
“some thought that a sober life with abstention of anything superfluous was needed to combat an attack”,
“lived separated from others”
“any occasion for debauchery”,
others, on the contrary, gave themselves up
“frankly to drink and pleasure”,
“as much satisfaction as possible to their passions”
“at the saddest events”
“such was, according to their words, the surest remedy against such an atrocious evil”.
And Boccace concluded that
“in the excess of affliction and misery into which our city is sinking, the prestige and authority of divine and human laws were disintegrating and completely crumbling”.
Florence lost four-fifths of its citizens, Venice two-thirds, as did Hamburg and Breme. The cities the most visited and the most populated were, of course, the first to be hit. Paris lost, in the year 1349, 800 inhabitants per day, that is, in total, 50,000 people, half of its population. But, even in the villages, mortality was just as abundant: Givry, a town of 1200-1500 inhabitants, counted 615 deaths in fourteen weeks against 30 per year for the ten preceding years. When the living became too few, the villages were deserted and Nature took over. Even more terrible were the cases where the illness broke out in closed places, like a prison or a monastery: only 7 brothers escaped it out of the 140 Dominicans installed at Montpellier. Friar de Petrarque was the only survivor, with his dog, of the confederation of Chartreux where he lived.
The epidemic hit rich and poor alike: In Venice, in 1348, fifty noble families disappeared and numerous urban and rural properties were left abandoned. Important social and economic transformations resulted from this, such as the ascension of the Medicis in Toscany, from the XIVth Century, ascension partly due to the disappearance of the elite who had preceded them. On a more important scale, the commercial decline of the Mediterranean in favour of the northern ports of Europe, must be imputed to the black death. Elsewhere, all sorts of acts of brigandage multiplied throughout Europe, with their cortege of atrocities. The most redoubtable and the most redoubted were those perpetrated by the gravediggers. These were recruted in the lowest classes of society, sometimes even among the criminals liberated from the gaols transformed into hospitals. They gave themselves up to pillage, and didn’t hesitate to bury patients who were still alive, or declare sick people healthy, in order to take their goods.
Crops being often left abandoned and herds disappearing through lack of care, famines accompanied the epidemic, leading to social insurrections of unspeakable violence, as well as multiple cases of cannibalism, both in the South and the North of the Continent. During these sombre years, wild animals invaded immense rural spaces, as reported by an Italian eyewitness:
“Wild wolves wandered at night in packs and came to hurl under the walls of the cities. In the villages, they didn’t just slink into certain places, like they usually do, to satisfy their thirst for blood; they entered boldly into open houses and dragged the smallest children from their mothers’ sides; and they didn’t only attack children, but even armed men, which they overcame. For the people of that time, they weren’t wild animals, but demons. Other quadrupeds abandoned their forests and approached houses in hords, as if they were conscious of extraordinary circumstances. Crows flew over the city in innumerable flocks with loud croaking. Kites and vultures were heard in the air and other inhabitual migrating birds were seen to appear. Cuckoos and owls landed on rooves, filling the night with their lugubrious calls. Field-mice had lost all timidity and had established themselves amongst the humans.”
A Neuberg chronicler added:
“Men and women […] roamed everywhere, as if demented.”
In the face of this illness, medicine was mostly helpless. The mystery of the contagion was
“the most terrible of all of the terrors”,
as a Flemish man caught up in ravaged Avignon put it. Most doctors counselled flight from the epidemic, often leading by example: sometimes they had to be taken manu militari to the patients packed into hospitals, as happened in several Italian cities… However, certain disciples of Aesculape showed both intelligence and courage. In Avignon and the county of Venaissin – where the plague provoked the decease of 120,000 people, the great French doctor, Guy de Chauliac, deployed remarkable activity. He immediately recognized the contagious character of the illness and prescribed prophylactic measures to Pope Clement VI who was living there at the time: during the whole of the epidemic, the Pope remained locked up in his apartments, surrounded by fires and protected from any exterior contact. This measure doubtless saved his life, the Yersin bacillus (responsible for the illness) badly resisting extreme heat. Guy de Chauliac, who recognized, however, that the best way of escaping contamination was flight, refused to do it himself, unlike the majority of his colleagues. He even succeeded in curing himself when he was personally infected by the disease (he did, however, die from it when the epidemic came back, in 1363). The example of another great doctor, Gentilis de Foligno, must also be mentioned. He made important progress in his art by proceeding to audacious dissections of plague victim cadavers. He died in 1348, in Perouse, a victim of his devotion to medicine.
To be continued.