The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7

Author: J. F. C. Hecker  | Date: A.D. 1348

The Black Death Ravages Europe

A.D. 1348


Different parts of the oriental world have been mentioned as the probable locality of the first appearance of the plague or pestilence known as the "black death," but its origin is most generally referred to China, where, at all events, it raged violently about 1333, when it was accompanied at its outbreak by terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena of a destructive character, such as are said to have attended the first appearance of Asiatic cholera and other spreading and deadly diseases; from which it has been conjectured that through these convulsions deleterious foreign substances may have been projected into the atmosphere.

But while for centuries the nature and causes of the black death have been subjects of medical inquiry in all countries, it remained for our own time to discover a more scientific explanation than those previously advanced. The malady is now identified by pathologists with the bubonic plague, which at intervals still afflicts India and other oriental lands, and has in recent years been a cause of apprehension at more than one American seaport.

It is called bubonic—from the Greek boubon ("groin ")—because it attacks the lymphatic glands of the groins, armpits, neck, and other parts of the body. Among its leading symptoms are headache, fever, vertigo, vomiting, prostration, etc., with dark purple spots or a mottled appearance upon the skin. Death in severe cases usually occurs within forty-eight hours. Bacteriologists are now generally agreed that the disorder is due to a bacillus identified by investigators both in India and in western countries.

The first historic appearance of the black death in Europe was at Constantinople, A.D. 543. But far more widespread and terrible were its ravages in the fourteenth century, when they were almost world-wide. Of the dreadful visitation in Europe then, we are fortunate to have the striking account of Dr. Hecker, which follows.

The name "black death" was given to the disease in the more northern parts of Europe—from the dark spots on the skin above mentioned—while in Italy it was called la mortalega grande ("the great mortality ").

From Italy came almost the only credible accounts of the manner of living, and of the ruin caused among the people in their more private life, during the pestilence; and the subjoined account of what was seen in Florence is of special interest as being from no less an eye-witness than Boccaccio.


The nature of the first plague in China is unknown. We have no certain intelligence of the disease until it entered the western countries of Asia. Here it showed itself as the oriental plague with inflammation of the lungs; in which form it probably also may have begun in China—that is to say, as a malady which spreads, more than any other, by contagion; a contagion that in ordinary pestilences requires immediate contact, and only under unfavorable circumstances of rare occurrence is communicated by the mere approach to the sick.

The share which this cause had in the spreading of the plague over the whole earth was certainly very great; and the opinion that the black death might have been excluded from Western Europe, by good regulations, similar to those which are now in use, would have all the support of modern experience, provided it could be proved that this plague had been actually imported from the East; or that the oriental plague in general, whenever it appears in Europe, has its origin in Asia or Egypt. Such a proof, however, can by no means be produced so as to enforce conviction. The plague was, however, known in Europe before nations were united by the bonds of commerce and social intercourse; hence there is ground for supposing that it sprung up spontaneously, in consequence of the rude manner of living and the uncultivated state of the earth; influences which peculiarly favor the origin of severe diseases. We need not go back to the earlier centuries, for the fourteenth itself, before it had half expired, was visited by five or six pestilences.

If, therefore, we consider the peculiar property of the plague, that in countries which it has once visited it remains for a long time in a milder form, and that the epidemic influences of 1342, when it had appeared for the last time, were particularly favorable to its unperceived continuance, till 1348, we come to the notion that in this eventful year also, the germs of plague existed in Southern Europe, which might be vivified by atmosphericaldeteriorations. Thus, at least in part, the ’black plague may have originated in Europe itself. The corruption of the atmosphere came from the East; but the disease itself came not upon the wings of the wind, but was only excited and increased by the atmosphere where it had previously existed.

This source of the black plague was not, however, the only one; for, far more powerful than the excitement of the latent elements of the plague by atmospheric influences was the effect of the contagion communicated from one people to another, on the great roads, and in the harbors of the Mediterranean. From China, the route of the caravans lay to the north of the Caspian Sea, through Central Asia to Tauris. Here ships were ready to take the produce of the East to Constantinople, the capital of commerce and the medium of connection between Asia, Europe, and Africa. Other caravans went from India to Asia Minor, and touched at the cities south of the Caspian Sea, and lastly from Bagdad, through Arabia to Egypt; also the maritime communication on the Red Sea, from India to Arabia and Egypt, was not inconsiderable. In all these directions contagion made its way; and doubtless Constantinople and the harbors of Asia Minor are to be regarded as the foci of infection; whence it radiated to the most distant seaports and islands.

To Constantinople the plague had been brought from the northern coast of the Black Sea, after it had depopulated the countries between those routes of commerce and appeared as early as 1347, in Cyprus, Sicily, Marseilles, and some of the seaports of Italy. The remaining islands of the Mediterranean, particularly Sardinia, Corsica, and Majorca, were visited in succession. Foci of contagion existed also in full activity along the whole southern coast of Europe; when, in January, 1348, the plague appeared in Avignon, and in other cities in the South of France and North of Italy, as well as in Spain.

The precise days of its eruption in the individual towns are no longer to be ascertained; but it was not simultaneous; for in Florence the disease appeared in the beginning of April; in Cesena, the 1st of June; and place after place was attacked throughout the whole year; so that the plague, after it had passed through the whole of France and Germany, where, however, it did not make its ravages until the following year, did not breakout till August in England; where it advanced so gradually that a period of three months elapsed before it reached London. The northern kingdoms were attacked by it in 1349; Sweden, indeed, not until November of that year, almost two years after its eruption in Avignon. Poland received the plague in 1349, probably from Germany, if not from the northern countries; but in Russia it did not make its appearance until 1351, more than three years after it had broken out in Constantinople. Instead of advancing in a northwesterly direction from Tauris and from the Caspian Sea, it had thus made the great circuit of the Black Sea, by way of Constantinople, Southern and Central Europe, England, the northern kingdoms and Poland, before it reached the Russian territories; a phenomenon which has not again occurred with respect to more recent pestilences originating in Asia.

We have no certain measure by which to estimate the ravages of the black plague. Let us go back for a moment to the fourteenth century. The people were yet but little civilized. Human life was little regarded; governments concerned not themselves about the numbers of their subjects, for whose welfare it was incumbent on them to provide. Thus, the first requisite for estimating the loss of human life—namely, a knowledge of the mount of the population—is altogether wanting.

Cairo lost daily, when the plague was raging with its greatest violence, from ten thousand to fifteen thousand, being as many as, in modern times, great plagues have carried off during their whole course. In China, more than thirteen millions are said to have died; and this is in correspondence with the certainly exaggerated accounts from the rest of Asia. India was depopulated. Tartary, the Tartar kingdom of Kaptschak, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, were covered with dead bodies; the Kurds fled in vain to the mountains. In Caramania and Csarea, none was left alive. On the roads, in the camps, in the caravansaries, unburied bodies were seen; and a few cities only remained, in an unaccountable manner, free. In Aleppo, five hundred died daily; twenty-two thousand people and most of the animals were carried off in Gaza within six weeks. Cyprus lost almost all its inhabitants; and ships without crews were often seen in the Mediterranean, as afterward in the North Sea,driving about and spreading the plague wherever they went on shore. It was reported to Pope Clement, at Avignon, that throughout the East, probably with the exception of China, twenty-three million eight hundred and forty thousand people had fallen victims to the plague.

Lubeck, which could no longer contain the multitudes that flocked to it, was thrown into such consternation on the eruption of the plague that the citizens destroyed themselves, as if in frenzy. When the plague ceased, men thought they were still wandering among the dead, so appalling was the livid aspect of the survivors, in consequence of the anxiety they had undergone, and the unavoidable infection of the air. Many other cities probably presented a similar appearance; and small country towns and villages, estimated at two hundred thousand population, were bereft of all their inhabitants.

In many places in France not more than two out of twenty of the inhabitants were left alive. Two queens, one bishop, and great numbers of other distinguished persons fell a sacrifice to it, and more than five hundred a day died in the Hôtel-Dieu, under the faithful care of the religious women, whose disinterested courage, in this age of horror, displayed the most beautiful traits of human virtue.

The churchyards were soon unable to contain the dead, and many houses, left without inhabitants, fell to ruins. In Avignon, the Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might be thrown into the river without delay, as the church-yards would no longer hold them.

In Vienna, where for some time twelve hundred inhabitants died daily, the interment of corpses in the church-yards and within the churches was forthwith prohibited, and the dead were then arranged in layers, by thousands, in six large pits outside the city. In many places it was rumored that plague patients were buried alive, and thus the horror of the distressed people was everywhere increased. In Erfurt, after the church-yards were filled, twelve thousand corpses were thrown into eleven great pits; and the like might be stated with respect to all the larger cities. Funeral ceremonies, the last consolation of the survivors, were everywhere impracticable.

In all Germany there seem to have died only one milliontwo hundred and forty-four thousand four hundred and thirty-four inhabitants; this country, however, was more spared than others. Italy was most severely visited. It is said to have lost half its inhabitants; in Sardinia and Corsica, according to the account of John Villani, who was himself carried off by the black plague, scarcely a third part of the population remained alive; and the Venetians engaged ships at a high rate to retreat to the islands; so that, after the plague had carried off three-fourths of her inhabitants, their proud city was left forlorn and desolate. In Florence it was prohibited to publish the numbers of the dead and to toll the bells at their funerals, in order that the living might not abandon themselves to despair.

In England most of the great cities suffered incredible losses; above all, Yarmouth, in which seven thousand and fifty-two died; Bristol, Oxford, Norwich, Leicester, York, and London, where, in one burial-ground alone, there were interred upward of fifty thousand corpses, arranged in layers, in large pits. It is said that in the whole country scarcely a tenth part remained alive. Morals were deteriorated everywhere, and public worship was, in a great measure, laid aside, in many places the churches being bereft of their priests. The instruction of the people was impeded, covetousness became general; and when tranquillity was restored, the great increase of lawyers was astonishing, to whom the endless disputes regarding inheritances offered a rich harvest. The want of priests, too, throughout the country, operated very detrimentally upon the people. The lower classes were most exposed to the ravages of the plague, while the houses of the nobility were, in proportion, much more spared. The sittings of parliament, of the king’s bench, and of most of the other courts were suspended as long as the malady raged.

Ireland was much less heavily visited than England. The disease seems to have scarcely reached the mountainous districts of that kingdom; and Scotland, too, would, perhaps, have remained free had not the Scots availed themselves of the misfortune of the English, to make an irruption into their territory, which terminated in the destruction of their army, by the plague and by the sword, and the extension of the pestilence, through those who escaped, over the whole country.

In England the plague was soon accompanied by a fatal murrain among the cattle. Of what nature this murrain may have been can no more be determined than whether it originated from communication with the plague patients or from other causes. There was everywhere a great rise in the price of food. For a whole year, until it terminated in August, 1349, the black plague prevailed and everywhere poisoned the springs of comfort and prosperity. In other countries it generally lasted only half a year, but returned frequently in individual places. Spain was uninterruptedly ravaged by the black plague till after the year 1350, to which the frequent internal feuds and the wars with the Moors not a little contributed. Alfonso XI, whose passion for war carried him too far, died of it at the siege of Gibraltar, March 26, 1350. He was the only king in Europe who fell a sacrifice to it. The mortality seems to have been less in Spain than in Italy, and about as considerable as in France.

The whole period during which the black plague raged with destructive violence in Europe was, with the exception of Russia, from 1347 to 1350· The plagues which in the sequel often returned until 1383, we do not consider as belonging to the "great mortality."

The premature celebration of the Jubilee, to which Clement VI cited the faithful to Rome 1350, during the great epidemic, caused a new eruption of the plague, from which it is said that scarcely one in a hundred of the pilgrims escaped. Italy was, in consequence, depopulated anew; and those who returned spread poison and corruption of morals in all directions.

The changes which occurred about this period in the North of Europe are sufficiently memorable. In Sweden two princes died—Haken and Canute, half-brothers of King Magnus; and in Westgothland alone four hundred and sixty-six priests. The inhabitants of Iceland and Greenland found in the coldness of their inhospitable climate no protection against the southern enemy who had penetrated to them from happier countries. The plague wrought great havoc among them. In Denmark and Norway, however, people were so occupied with their own misery that the accustomed voyages to Greenland ceased.

In Russia the black plague did not break out until 1351,after it had already passed through the South and North of Europe. The mortality was extraordinarily great. In Russia, too, the voice of nature was silenced by fear and horror. In the hour of danger, fathers and mothers deserted their children, and children their parents.

Of all the estimates of the number of lives lost in Europe, the most probable is that altogether a fourth part of the inhabitants were carried off. It may be assumed, without exaggeration, that Europe lost during the black death twenty-five million inhabitants.

That her nations could so quickly recover from so fearful a visitation, and, without retrograding more than they actually did, could so develop their energies in the following century, is a most convincing proof of the indestructibility of human society as a whole. To assume, however, that it did not suffer any essential change internally, because in appearance everything remained as before, is inconsistent with a just view of cause and effect. Many historians seem to have adopted such an opinion; hence, most of them have touched but superficially on the "great mortality" of the fourteenth century. We for our part are convinced that in the history of the world the black death is one of the most important events which have prepared the way for the present state of Europe.

He who studies the human mind with attention, and forms a deliberate judgment on the intellectual powers which set people and states in motion, may, perhaps, find some proofs of this assertion in the following observations. At that time the advancement of the hierarchy was, in most countries, extraordinary; for the Church acquired treasures and large properties in land, even to a greater extent than after the crusades; but experience has demonstrated that such a state of things is ruinous to the people, and causes them to retrograde, as was evinced on this occasion.

After the cessation of the black plague, a greater fecundity in women was everywhere remarkable; marriages were prolific; and double and treble births were more frequent than at other times. After the "great mortality" the children were said to have got fewer teeth than before; at which contemporaries were mightily shocked, and even later writers have felt surprise.Some writers of authority published their opinions on this subject. Others copied from them, without seeing for themselves, and thus the world believed in the miracle of an imperfection in the human body which had been caused by the black plague.

The people gradually consoled themselves after the sufferings which they had undergone; the dead were lamented and forgotten; and in the stirring vicissitudes of existence the world belonged to the living.

The mental shock sustained by all nations during the prevalence of the black plague is without parallel and beyond description. In the eyes of the timorous, danger was the certain harbinger of death; many fell victims to fear on the first appearance of the distemper, and the most stout-hearted lost their confidence. The pious closed their accounts with the world; their only remaining desire was for a participation in the consolations of religion. Repentance seized the transgressor, admonishing him to consecrate his remaining hours to the exercise of Christian virtues. Children were frequently seen, while laboring under the plague, breathing out their spirit with prayer and songs of thanksgiving. An awful sense of contrition seized Christians everywhere; they resolved to forsake their vices, to make restitution for past offences, before they were summoned hence, to seek reconciliation with their Maker, and to avert, by self-chastisement, the punishment due to their former sins.

Human nature would be exalted could the countless noble actions which, in times of most imminent danger, were performed in secret, be recorded for future generations. They, however, have no influence on the course of worldly events. They are known only to silent eye-witnesses, and soon fall into oblivion. But hypocrisy, illusion, and bigotry stalk abroad undaunted; they desecrate what is noble, they pervert what is divine, to the unholy purposes of selfishness; which hurries along every good feeling in the false excitement of the age. Thus it was in the years of this plague.

In the fourteenth century the monastic system was still in its full vigor, the power of the religious orders and brotherhoods was revered by the people, and the hierarchy was still formidable to the temporal power. It was, therefore, in the natural constitution of society that bigoted zeal, which in such timesmakes a show of public acts of penance, should avail itself of the semblance of religion. But this took place in such a manner that unbridled, self-willed penitence degenerated into luke-warmness, renounced obedience to the hierarchy, and prepared a fearful opposition to the Church, paralyzed as it was by antiquated forms.

While all countries were filled with lamentations and woe, there first arose in Hungary, and afterward in Germany, the Brotherhood of the Flagellants, called also the Brethren of the Cross, or Cross-bearers, who took upon themselves the repentance of the people for the sins they had committed, and offered prayers and supplications for the averting of this plague. This order consisted chiefly of persons of the lower class, who were either actuated by sincere contrition or who joyfully availed themselves of this pretext for idleness and were hurried along with the tide of distracting frenzy. But as these brotherhoods gained in repute, and were welcomed by the people with veneration and enthusiasm, many nobles and ecclesiastics ranged themselves under their standard; and their bands were not unfrequently augmented by children, honorable women, and nuns.

They marched through the cities with leaders and singers, their heads covered as far as the eyes, their look fixed on the ground, with every token of contrition and mourning. They were robed in sombre garments, with red crosses on the breast, back, and cap, and bore triple scourges, tied in three or four knots, in which points of iron were fixed. Tapers and magnificent banners of velvet and cloth of gold were carried before them; wherever they made their appearance they were welcomed by the ringing of bells, and the people flocked from all quarters to listen to their hymns and witness their penance.

In 1349 two hundred Flagellants first entered Strasburg, where they were hospitably lodged by the citizens. Above a thousand joined the brotherhood, which now separated into two bodies, for the purpose of journeying to the north and to the south. Adults and children left their families to accompany them; till, at length, their sanctity was questioned and the doors of houses and churches were closed against them. At Spires two hundred boys, of twelve years of age and under, constituted themselves into a brotherhood of the Cross, in imitation of the,children who, about a hundred years before, had united, at the instigation of some fanatic monks, for the purpose of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. All the inhabitants of this town were carried away by the delusion; they conducted the strangers to their houses with songs of thanksgiving, to regale them for the night. The women embroidered banners for them, and all were anxious to augment their pomp; and at every succeeding pilgrimage their influence and reputation increased.

All Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, Silesia, and Flanders did homage to them; and they at length became as formidable to the secular as to the ecclesiastical power. The influence of this fanaticism was great and threatening. The appearance, in itself, was not novel. As far back as the eleventh century many believers in Asia and Southern Europe afflicted themselves with the punishment of flagellation.

The author of the solemn processions of the Flagellants is said to have been St. Anthony of Padua (1231). In 1260 the Flagellants appeared in Italy as Devoti. "When the land was polluted by vices and crimes, an unexampled spirit of remorse suddenly seized the minds of the Italians. The fear of Christ fell upon all; noble and lowly, old and young, and even children of five years of age marched through the streets with no covering but a scarf round the waist. They each carried a scourge of leathem thongs, which they applied to their limbs, amid sighs and tears, with such violence that the blood flowed from the wounds. Not only during the day, but even by night and in the severest winter, they traversed the cities with burning torches and banners, in thousands and tens of thousands, headed by their priests, and prostrated themselves before the altars. The melancholy chant of the penitent alone was heard; enemies were reconciled; men and women vied with each other in splendid works of charity, as if they dreaded that divine omnipotence would pronounce on them the doom of annihilation."

But at length the priests resisted this dangerous fanaticism, without being able to extirpate the illusion, which was advantageous to the hierarchy, as long as it submitted to its sway.

The processions of the Brotherhood of the Cross undoubtedly promoted the spreading of the plague; and it is evident thatthe gloomy fanaticism which gave rise to them would infuse a new poison into the already desponding minds of the people.

Still, however, all this was within the bounds of barbarous enthusiasm; but horrible were the persecutions of the Jews, which were committed in most countries with even greater exasperation than in the twelfth century, during the first crusades. In every destructive pestilence the common people at first attribute the mortality to poison. On whom, then, was vengeance so likely to fall as on the Jews, the usurers and the strangers who lived at enmity with the Christians? They were everywhere suspected of having poisoned the wells2 or infected the air, and were pursued with merciless cruelty.

These bloody scenes, which disgraced Europe in the fourteenth century, are a counterpart to a similar mania of the age which was manifested in the persecutions of witches and sorcerers; and, like these, they prove that enthusiasm, associated with hatred and leagued with the baser passions, may work more powerfully upon whole nations than religion and legal order; nay, that it even knows how to profit by the authority of both, in order the more surely to satiate with blood the swords of long-suppressed revenge.

The persecution of the Jews commenced in September and October, 1348, at Chillon, on the Lake of Geneva, where the first criminal proceedings were instituted against them, after they had long before been accused by the people of poisoning the wells; similar scenes followed in Bern and in Freiburg, in 1349. Under the influence of excruciating suffering, the tortured Jews confessed themselves guilty of the crime imputed to them; and it being affirmed that poison had in fact been found in a well at Zofingen, this was deemed a sufficient proof to convince the world; and the persecution of the abhorred culprits thus appeared justifiable.

Already in the autumn of 1348 a dreadful panic, caused by this supposed poisoning, seized all nations; in Germany, especially, the springs and wells were built over, that nobody might drink of them or employ their contents for culinary purposes;and for a long time the inhabitants of numerous towns and villages used only river- and rain-water. The city gates were also guarded with the greatest caution: only confidential persons were admitted; and if medicine or any other article which might be supposed to be poisonous was found in the possession of a stranger—and it was natural that some should have these things by them for private use—he was forced to swallow a portion of it. By this trying state of privation, distrust, and suspicion the hatred against the supposed poisoners became greatly increased, and often broke out in popular commotions, which only served still further to infuriate the wildest passions.

The noble and the mean fearlessly bound themselves by an oath to extirpate the Jews by fire and sword, and to snatch them from their protectors, of whom the number was so small that throughout all Germany but few places can be mentioned where these unfortunate people were not regarded as outlaws and martyred and burned. Solemn summonses were issued from Bern to the towns of Basel, Freiburg in Breisgau, and Strasburg, to pursue the Jews as poisoners. The burgomasters and senators, indeed, opposed this requisition; but in Basel the populace obliged them to bind themselves by an oath to burn the Jews and to forbid persons of that community from entering their city for the space of two hundred years. Upon this, all the Jews in Basel, whose number could not have been inconsiderable, were enclosed in a wooden building, constructed for the purpose, and burned, together with it, upon the mere outcry of the people, without sentence or trial, which, indeed, would have availed them nothing. Soon after the same thing took place at Freiburg.

A regular diet was held at Bennefeld, in Alsace, where the bishops, lords, and barons, as also deputies of the counties and towns, consulted how they should proceed with regard to the Jews; and when the deputies of Strasburg—not, indeed, the bishop of this town, who proved himself a violent fanatic—spoke in favor of the persecuted, as nothing criminal was substantiated against them, a great outcry was raised, and it was vehemently asked why, if so, they had covered their wells and removed their buckets? A sanguinary decree was resolved upon, of which the populace, who obeyed the call of the noblesand superior clergy, became but the too willing executioners. Wherever the Jews were not burned they were at least banished; and so being compelled to wander about, they fell into the hands of the country people, who, without humanity and regardless of all laws, persecuted them with fire and sword.

At Eslingen, the whole Jewish community burned themselves in their synagogue; and mothers were often seen throwing their children on the pile, to prevent their being baptized, and then precipitating themselves into the flames. In short, whatever deeds fanaticism, revenge, avarice, and desperation, in fearful combination, could instigate mankind to perform, were executed in 1349, throughout Germany, Italy, and France, with impunity and in the eyes of all the world. It seemed as if the plague gave rise to scandalous acts and frantic tumults, not to mourning and grief; and the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, were called upon to raise the voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder.

The humanity and prudence of Clement VI must on this occasion also be mentioned to his honor. He not only protected the Jews at Avignon, as far as lay in his power, but also issued two bulls in which he declared them innocent, and he admonished all Christians, though without success, to cease from such groundless persecutions. The emperor Charles IV was also favorable to them, and sought to avert their destruction wherever he could; but he dared not draw the sword of justice, and even found himself obliged to yield to the selfishness of the Bohemian nobles, who were unwilling to forego so favorable an opportunity of releasing themselves from their Jewish creditors, under favor of an imperial mandate. Duke Albert of Austria burned and pillaged those of his cities which had persecuted the Jews—a vain and inhuman proceeding which, moreover, is not exempt from the suspicion of covetousness; yet he was unable, in his own fortress of Kyberg, to protect some hundreds of Jews, who had been received there, from being barbarously burned by the inhabitants.

Several other princes and counts, among whom was Ruprecht of the Palatinate, took the Jews under their protection, on the payment of large sums; in consequence of which they were called "Jewmasters," and were in danger of being attackedby the populace and by their powerful neighbors. These persecuted and ill-used people—except, indeed, where humane individuals took compassion on them at their own peril, or when they could command riches to purchase protection—had no place of refuge left but the distant country of Lithuania, where Boleslav V, Duke of Poland, 1227-1279, had before granted them liberty of conscience; and King Casimir the Great, 1333-1370, yielding to the entreaties of Esther, a favorite Jewess, received them, and granted them further protection; on which account that country is still inhabited by a great number of Jews, who by their secluded habits have, more than any people in Europe, retained the manners of the Middle Ages.


When the evil had become universal in Florence, the hearts of all the inhabitants were closed to feelings of humanity. They fled from the sick and all that belonged to them, hoping by these means to save themselves. Others shut themselves up in their houses, with their wives, their children and households, living on the most costly food, but carefully avoiding all excess. None was allowed access to them; no intelligence of death or sickness was permitted to reach their ears; and they spent their time in singing and music and other pastimes.

Others, on the contrary, considered caring and drinking to excess, amusements of all descriptions, the indulgence of every gratification, and an indifference to what was passing around them as the best medicine, and acted accordingly. They wandered day and night from one tavern to another, and feasted without moderation or bounds. In this way they endeavored to avoid all contact with the sick, and abandoned their houses and property to chance, like men whose death-knell had already tolled.

Amid this general lamentation and woe, the influence and authority of every law, human and divine, vanished. Most of those who were in office had been carried off by the plague, or lay sick, or had lost so many members of their families that they were unable to attend to their duties; so that thenceforth everyone acted as he thought proper. Others, in their mode of living, chose a middle course. They ate and drank whatthey pleased, and walked abroad, carrying odoriferous flowers, herbs, or spices, which they smelt at from time to time, in order to invigorate the brain and to avert the baneful influence of the air, infected by the sick and by the innumerable corpses of those who had died of the plague. Others carried their precaution still further, and thought the surest way to escape death was by flight. They therefore left the city; women as well as men abandoning their dwellings and their relations, and retiring into the country. But of these, also, many were carried off, most of them alone and deserted by all the world, themselves having previously set the example.

Thus it was that one citizen fled from another—a neighbor from his neighbors—a relation from his relations; and in the end, so completely had terror extinguished every kindlier feeling that the brother forsook the brother, the sister the sister, the wife her husband, and at last even the parent his own offspring, and abandoned them, unvisited and unsoothed, to their fate. Those, therefore, that stood in need of assistance fell a prey to greedy attendants; who, for an exorbitant recompense, merely handed the sick their food and medicine, remained with them in their last moments, and then not unfrequently became themselves victims to their avarice, and lived not to enjoy their extorted gain.

Propriety and decorum were extinguished among the helpless sick. Females of rank seemed to forget their natural bashfulness, and committed the care of their persons, indiscriminately, to men and women of the lowest order. No longer were women, relatives or friends, found in the houses of mourning, to share the grief of the survivors; no longer was the corpse accompanied to the grave by neighbors and a numerous train of priests, carrying wax tapers and singing psalms, nor was it borne along by other citizens of equal rank. Many breathed their last without a friend to comfort them in their last moments; and few indeed were they who departed amid the lamentations and tears of their friends and kindred.

Instead of sorrow and mourning, appeared indifference, frivolity, and mirth; this being considered, especially by the females, as conducive to health. Seldom was the body followed by even ten or twelve attendants; and instead of the usual bearers and sextons, hirelings of the lowest of the populace undertook the office for the sake of gain; and accompanied by only a few priests, and often without a single taper, it was borne to the very nearest church, and lowered into the first grave that was not already too full to receive it. Among the middling classes, and especially among the poor, the misery was still greater. Poverty or negligence induced most of these to remain in their dwellings or in the immediate neighborhood; and thus they fell by thousands; and many ended their lives in the streets by day and by night.

The stench of putrefying corpses was often the first indication to their neighbors that more deaths had occurred. The survivors, to preserve themselves from infection, generally had the bodies taken out of the houses and laid before the doors, where the early morn found them in heaps, exposed to the affrighted gaze of the passing stranger. It was no longer possible to have a bier for every corpse—three or four were generally laid together; husband and wife, father and mother, with two or three children, were frequently borne to the grave on the same bier; and it often happened that two priests would accompany a coffin, bearing the cross before it, and be joined on the way by several other funerals; so that instead of one, there were five or six bodies for interment.

1Translated from the German by B. G. Babington.

2Thucydides, in his account of the earlier plague in Athens, B.C. 430, says, " It was supposed that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the cisterns."


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Chicago: J. F. C. Hecker and Giovanni Boccaccio, "The Black Death Ravages Europe," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 131–146. Original Sources, accessed August 13, 2022,

MLA: Hecker, J. F. C., and Giovanni Boccaccio. "The Black Death Ravages Europe." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 131–146. Original Sources. 13 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Hecker, JF, Boccaccio, G, 'The Black Death Ravages Europe' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.131–146. Original Sources, retrieved 13 August 2022, from