Boccaccio Describes the Black Death Florence – 1348

I had not planned to include the Preamble to the Decameron, because it is so well known, but three friends on three different continents wanted it, so here it is:

Here begins the First Day of the Decameron, in which, when the author has explained how the characters, who will appear later, met together for an exchange of conversation, they will each in turn talk about the matters that most appeal to them, under the rule of one of their number, Pampinea.

When I think, most gracious ladies, how very compassionate you all are by nature, I cannot pretend that you will not find this prelude heavy and upsetting. It is bound to revive unhappy memories of the recent mortal plague, which has not only deeply distressed everyone who was an eye-witnesses to it, but also all those who only heard about it. But I want to say that you should not be afraid to read further, or be afraid than reading on will involve sighs and tears. This somewhat grim beginning is like a steep and rugged mountain confronting travellers, which then gives way a fair and delightful valley, which is made even more agreeable by the previous labour of the ascent and descent. So, the dismal subject of this brief introduction – brief because it really can be set down in a few words – will be followed by the pleasure and entertainment I have promised you…. If it had been honestly possible to do so, I would have been glad to bring you by a smoother road, but without explaining the background, there is no way I can make you understand how the matters that you are about to read about came to pass. So, if I am to write on the subject at all, I am almost bound to take this route.

Let me continue: in the year one thousand three hundred and forty-eight from the blessed Incarnation of the Son of God, in the noble city of Florence, the fairest city in all Italy, a deadly plague broke out, whether through the influence of the celestial bodies or through God’s wrath, justified by the sins of mankind. It had originated some years earlier in the East, where it killed uncounted numbers of living creatures, and then spread without respite, moving from place to place, until – disastrously – it reached the West.

In Florence, in spite of everything that human wisdom and forethought could do to prevent it spreading, such as: cleaning the city of accumulated dirt by officials appointed for the purpose; refusing entrance to anyone showing signs of sickness; adopting all possible precautions for maintaining health; beseeching God’s mercy both by means of frequent public processions and prayers offered by the devout, towards the spring of the said year, the terrible effects of the plague began to be horribly apparent and the symptoms became clearly visible.

The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where bleeding from the nose was the clear sign of imminent death. Here, in both men and women, it first showed itself by the emergence of a bubo in the groin or the armpit, sometimes as large as an ordinary apple, sometimes the size of an egg, some more, some less, and the people called them gavocciolo. From these two parts of the body, the deadly bubo began to divide and spread itself in all or any direction. After that, the form of the disease began to change and black or ash-coloured spots began to appear, often on the arm or thigh or elsewhere, sometimes a few, large in size, sometimes many and small. And just as the bubo was a sure sign of approaching death, so were these marks on anyone on whom they appeared.

The disease seemed to set at naught all the art and learning both of doctors and their remedies. This may have been because the disease was of the kind to defy all attempts at treatment or because the physicians were at fault. Besides those qualified, there were now large numbers of both men and women practising as doctors without having the slightest training in medical science and, being ignorant of what they were doing, failing to apply the appropriate remedies. Whichever was the case, very few recovered. Almost all died three days after the appearance of the symptoms mentioned, in most cases without fever or any other form of illness.

The virulence of the disease was made greater by the fact that it passed from the sick to the healthy through contact, just as fire devours anything dry or oily brought close to it.  The evil in fact went even further. Not only did close association or speech with the sick person cause infection and the likelihood of sharing in their death, but anyone touching a cloth or any other object that had been used by someone diseased, was liable to catch the plague themselves.

What I am about to relate sounds so unlikely that if many, including myself, had not witnessed it with their own eyes, I would not dare believe it, let alone set it down in writing, even if I had heard it from a reliable witness.

The virulence with which this disease was transmitted was so great that it not only spread from man to man, but also – which is much more startling – by objects which had belonged to someone sick or dead of the infection. If they were touched by some living creature, including other than a human, they were the cause not only of sickening, but often of almost instantaneous death.

As I have just mentioned, one day, I witnessed with my own eyes the following example of what I am saying. The rags of a poor man who had died of the disease were lying about in the street when two pigs came past, rootling with their snouts, as they are apt to do, and taking the rags in their teeth tossed them about in their jaws, whereupon, almost immediately, they turned round and round a few times and fell dead, as if poisoned, on the rags which by an evil chance they had disturbed.

Such circumstances, as well as many others often more serious, gave rise to every sort of vivid imagining and terror in the minds of those left alive. It led them almost all to the same harsh conclusion: in other words, to avoid and treat with abhorrence all contact with the sick and everything belonging to them, hoping in that way to secure their own health.

There were those who thought that living a temperate life, avoiding all excesses, would serve very well as a protection against such events. They, therefore, gathered together, avoiding all others and formed communities in houses where there were no sick. They lived a carefully regulated life, separate and secluded, avoiding every sort of luxury, eating and drinking moderately, but only the choicest foods and finest wines. They conversed only among themselves and with no-one else, lest they should hear any news of sickness or death, and they distracted themselves with music and whatever other pleasures they could devise.

Others, whose minds worked in the completely opposite direction, claimed that drinking freely, spending time in public places, enjoying themselves with songs and revelry, satisfying every appetite and laughing and mocking at the world was the best remedy for such an evil. And they put into practice what they preached, insofar as they were able. Day and night, they would go from this tavern to that, drinking with no regard for the law or any kind of moderation. They preferred to make the houses of others serve as inns, if they saw any that they liked. They were able to do this because the owners, seeing death at hand, were as careless of their property as of their lives. In this way, most houses were open to all comers and no distinction was made between the rightful owner and some stranger who came to the door. This is how they arranged their lives, keeping to their inhuman determination to avoid the sick as far as possible.

At this time of our city’s extreme suffering and tribulation, the time-honoured authority of laws, human and divine, was degraded and almost completely abolished, for lack of those people who should have administered them and upheld them. So many of them, as with all the other citizens, were either sick or dead, or so hard-pressed for staff that they were unable to carry out their duties. As a result, every man was free to do what seemed to him to be right.

There were a certain number who belonged to neither of these parties, but kept a middle course, neither paying the same excessive attention to their diet as the former, nor engaging in the same drunkenness and self-indulgence as the latter. They therefore went out of their houses, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or different kinds of spices, which they often raised to their noses, thinking it was an excellent thing to sooth their senses with such perfumes, because everywhere the air stank of the dead and dying and reeked of the smell of drugs.

Some again, perhaps the soundest in judgement – although also the harshest in their approach – decided there was no medicine for the disease as effective as flight. So, following this, a large number of men and women, indifferent to everything except themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estate, the families, their possessions and went into voluntary exile. Alternatively, they migrated into the country, as if God, visiting this plague upon men for their sins, could not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might go, but intended only to destroy those who stayed within the circuit of the city walls. Or perhaps they thought that all should for flee, for the last hour had come.

Not all who held these various opinions died and, similarly, not all escaped. Rather, many of each type and in each place sickened and were treated by those who remained healthy according to the example which they themselves had set when they were well – in other words were left weak and abandoned, in almost total neglect. It would be tedious to describe how citizen avoided citizen; how among neighbours few, if any, showed any fellow-feeling for each other; how families stayed apart and almost never met. It is enough to say that this terrible disease affected the minds of both men and women so deeply that its horror caused brother to be abandoned by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and, often, husband by wife. What is more – and this is hardly believable – fathers and mothers abandoned their own children, uncared for, unvisited, left to their fate, as if they were strangers.

The sick of both sexes, in numbers that cannot even be estimated, were left with no means of support, but the charity of friends or the attention of servants, who were hardly to be had, except at very high rates and on unsuitable terms. Even these, both men and women, were completely ignorant and for the most part unused to the kind of tasks they were called upon to perform, so that they did nothing more than fulfil the immediate needs expressed by the sick – and watch them die. They themselves often died, as a result of performing these services, and with them what they hoped to gain.

As a result of the lack of servants and the abandonment of the sick by family, friends and neighbours, something happened which had perhaps never happened before: no woman, no matter how fastidious, fair or well-born she might be, shrank when she was infected with the disease from being cared for by a man, and it was of no importance whether he was young or not. She felt no hesitation in baring every part of her body to him, with no more shame than if he had been a woman. This was imposed on her by the demands of her illness, but it involved some loss of modesty in those who recovered.

Besides, there were many who died, who with proper care might have escaped death. As a result, between the severity of the plague and the lack of due attention for the sick, the number of deaths that took place in the city, by day and by night, was such that those who heard of it – to say nothing of those who were witnesses – were struck dumb with amazement. It was hardly surprising, then, that new habits, often contrary to the old ones, should emerge among the survivors.

It has been – and still is today – the custom for women who were neighbours and kin of the deceased to gather in his house with his closest female relatives and mourn together with them. Meanwhile, his male relatives and neighbours, and a good number of other citizens, as well as members of the clergy, depending on his status, would gather outside, in front of the house to receive the corpse. The dead man would then be born on the shoulders of his peers, with the traditional rites of candles and funeral chants, to the church chosen by him before his death.

As the plague increased in virulence, these rituals were largely or altogether abandoned and gave way to altogether new practices. To begin with, no crowd of women surrounded the bed of the dying, and many passed from this life completely ignored. Indeed, very few were vouchsafed the tears and laments of grieving relations. On the contrary, their place was taken by laughter, jokes and festive gatherings, behaviour which the women, having as a rule set aside domestic piety, had adopted as beneficial to their health. There were few whose bodies were accompanied to the church by more than ten or twelve of their neighbours and those were not honourable and respectable citizens, but a class known as corpse-carriers, drawn from the lowest ranks, who performed these tasks for hire. They would shoulder the bier and carry it hastily, not to the church of the dead man’s choice, but to whichever happened to be nearest. In front, there might be four or six clerics with a candle or two – or none – nor did the priests bother with a long and solemn service, but with the help of the corpse-carriers would quickly dump the body in the first empty grave they found.

The condition of the lower and, perhaps even more, the middle ranks of the population was even worse and more wretched. Whether because they had false hopes or because they were forced by poverty, they stayed in their houses, in their tenements, where thousands of them sickened daily and because there was no care or help of any kind, death inevitably overtook them. Many died, by day and by night, in the public streets. Many more, who died at home, were hardly missed by their neighbours until the stench of putrefaction from their corpses carried the news. Between their bodies and the corpses of those who died on every hand, the whole city was a sepulchre.

Neighbours very often, as much because they were afraid of contamination from the putrefying corpses, as from charity towards the dead, would drag the bodies out of the houses with their own hands, helped perhaps by a corpse-carrier, if one were to be found, and lay them in front of the doors. There, anyone making the rounds, especially in the morning, would be able to see more than he could count. Afterwards, biers would be brought up, or, if there were none, simple planks on which to lay them. It was not just occasionally that the same bier carried two or three corpses at once, but it was something that happened often, with one bier serving for husband and wife, for two or three brothers, for father and son, and other like examples.

And it happened over and over again that as two priests carrying the cross were on their way to perform the last rites for someone, one, three or four biers would be carried behind them by the porters, so that whereas the priests thought they had one corpse to bury, they found there were six or eight, or sometimes more. And although there were so many of them, their funeral rites were not honoured by tears, or candles or crowds of mourners, but rather the point had been reached that a dead man was of no more importance than a dead goat would be today.

From all this, it is quite clear that the lesson of patient resignation, which wise men were quite unable to learn from the occasional minor mishaps that occur in the natural course of events, was now instilled into the minds of even the simplest by the scale of the disaster – they became indifferent.

There was not enough consecrated ground to provide graves for the vast number of corpses which were brought in the greatest haste, day and night, indeed almost every hour, to the churches for burial. Certainly not, if the ancient custom of allotting a separate resting place for each was to be observed. As a result, as soon as a grave yard was full, they dug a huge trench and laid the bodies in it as they arrived, hundreds at a time. They piled them up the way merchandise is stacked in the hold of a ship, layer upon layer, each covered with a little earth, until the trench would hold no more.

I will spare you a more detailed description of all the troubles that visited our city and say, very briefly, that although her fate was harsh, it was no better in the surrounding countryside. There – not to mention in the castles, each of which was like a little city in itself – in villages, whether tucked away or in the open countryside, along the edges of the roads, in farm or homestead, the poor unfortunate farmers and their families, deprived of any medical care or support from servants, died day and night, more like beasts than men.

They too, like the city-dwellers, gave up all the normal rules of life, all the habits of industry, all the practice of frugality. In fact, they all behaved as if each day was to be their last. They not only ceased helping nature bring forth the produce of their beasts and lands, whether in due season, or as a result of their past labours, but they even, by every possible means, found ways to waste the stores they had laid up. They failed to shelter their oxen, asses, sheep, pigs, goats, pigs, fowls, even their dogs, man’s most faithful companions, driving them out into the fields to wander among the corn, which was not only unsheaved, but unreaped.

But that is enough about the country! Returning to the city, what can we add, except that the harshness of heaven – and to some extent of man – was such that it is believed , beyond doubt, that between March and the following July, upwards of 100 000 people lost their lives within the walls of the city of Florence which, before the deadly coming of the pestilence, no-one would have believed to have held so many people. The causes were the fury of the plague, the panic of those whom it spared, who neglected or deserted in their hour of need those who were struck down.

How many splendid palaces, once full of lords and ladies and their retainers were now left empty of even the most humble servants. How many families with names well-known to history and vast ancestral estates, whose wealth was proverbial, now had no heirs to carry on the line. How many brave men, how many beautiful women, how many gallant youths, whom Galen, Hippocrates or Aesculapius himself would have said were in the most perfect health, breakfasted with their families, companions and friends in the morning and, when evening came, dined with their ancestors in the other world.

I, myself, find it tiresome to tell this sad depressing story in so much detail, so I have decided to pass over as much of it as I reasonably can. As I have said, our city, having lost so much of its population, it so happened that I heard from someone, who is to be believed, that on a Tuesday morning, after Mass, the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella was almost deserted, except for the presence of seven young women, wearing the sad colours appropriate to the times. All were connected by ties of blood, or at least were friends and neighbours. All were good-looking and intelligent, of noble birth, well-bred and lively within the bounds of modesty. None was more than twenty-eight, or younger than eighteen.

I would give their names, if I did not have a reason not to do so. I am concerned that matters which may be set down later, things that they spoke of or heard, might at some future date be used to reproach any one of them. This is because at that time, for the reasons we have already explained, there was much greater license given as to how people older than themselves spent their leisure hours. The manners of today are more closely regulated and I do not want to provide fault-finders, always ready to criticise where praise is due, with material, or enable them to cast envious slurs on the honour of these noble ladies. So, in order that it may be understood who is speaking without confusion, I plan to give them each a name more or less appropriate to their character. The first, being the eldest of the seven, we will call Pampinea, the second Fiammetta, the third Filomena, the fourth Emilia, the fifth shall be known as Lauretta, the sixth as Neifile and the last, not without reason, shall be named Elisa.

These ladies met in the same part of the church, not by arrangement, but by pure chance and at length, grouping themselves into a sort of circle, after sighing a little, they gave up reciting prayers and began to talk of the times they were living through, among other topics.

Arising from this conversation, Pampinea suggests that they should go to a country estate and keep quarantine away from the stricken city, passing their time in a delightful place, engaged in pleasant and civilized activities. They are joined by three young men and this is, of course, the frame for the stories of the Decameron.

It is not clear how much of the period of the Black Death Giovanni Boccaccio spent in Florence, which may have lost as many as three quarters of its citizens. However, even if he was in Ravenna for part of the time, members of his family died, his father was the minister in charge of supplies, and he would have had a brutally clear picture of what had happened when he began to write the Decameron in the following year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: