Ibn al-Wardi – On the Advance of Plague – 1348

Ibn al-Wardi (1292-1348/9) was a Syrian historian and geographer.

The Plague frightened and killed. It began in the land of darkness. Oh, what a visitor! It has been current for fifteen years. China was not preserved from it nor could the strongest fortress hinder it. The plague afflicted the Indians in India. It weighed upon the Sind. It seized with its hand and ensnared even the land of the Uzbeks. How many backs did it break in what is Transoxiana? The plague increased and spread further. It attacked the Persians…and gnawed away at the Crimea. It pelted Rum with live coals and led the outrage to Cyprus and the islands. The plague destroyed mankind in Cairo. Its eye was cast upon Egypt, and behold, the people were wide awake. It stilled all movement in Alexandria. The plague did its work like a silkworm. It took from the tiraz*factory its beauty and did to its workers what fate decreed.

Oh Alexandria; this plague is like a lion which extends its paw to you. Have patience with the fate of the plague, which leaves of seventy men only seven.

Then, the plague turned to Upper Egypt. It also sent forth its storm to Barqah. The plague attacked Gaza, and it shook Asqalan severely. The plague oppressed Acre. The scourge came to Jerusalem and paid the zakat**[with the souls of men]. It overtook those people who fled to the al-Aqsa mosque, which stands beside the Dome of the Rock. If the door of mercy had not been opened, the end of the world would have occurred in a moment. It, then, hastened its pace and attacked the entire maritime plain. The plague attacked Sidon and descended unexpectedly upon Beirut, cunningly. Next, it directed the shooting of its arrows to Damascus. There the plague sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power, killing daily 1000 or more and decimating the population. It destroyed mankind with its pustules. May God the Most High spare Damascus to pursue its own path and extinguish the plague’s fires so they do not come close to her fragrant orchards.

Oh God, restore Damascus and protect her from insult. Its morale has been so lowered that people in the city sell themselves for a grain.

Oh God, it is acting by Your command. Lift this from us. It happens where You wish; keep the plague from us. Who will defend us against the horror other than You the Almighty? . . .

How many places has the plague entered. It swore not to leave the houses without [taking] their inhabitants. It searched them with a lamp. The pestilence caused the people of Aleppo the same disturbance. It sent out its snake and crept along. It was named the “Plague of the Ansab.” ***It was the sixth plague to strike in Islam. To me it is the death of which our Prophet warned, on him be the best prayers and peace.

One man begs another to take care of his children, one says goodbye to his neighbors. A third perfects his works, and another prepares his shroud. A fifth is reconciled with his enemies, and another treats his friends with kindness. One is very generous; another makes friends with those who have betrayed him. Another man puts aside his property; one frees his servants [slaves]. One man changes his character while another mends his ways. For this plague has captured all people and is about to send its ultimate destruction. There is no protection today from it other than His mercy, praise be to God.

Nothing prevented us from running away from the plague except our devotion to the noble tradition. Come then, seek the aid of God Almighty for raising the plague, for He is the best helper.

Ibn al-Wardi goes on to mention the medical precautions taken in Aleppo:

 Oh, if you could see the nobles of Aleppo studying their inscrutable books of medicine. They multiply its remedies by eating dried and sour foods. The buboes which disturb men’s healthy lives are smeared the Armenian clay. Each man treated his humours and made his life more comfortable. They perfumed their homes with ambergris and camphor, cyprus and sandal. They wore ruby rings and put onions, vinegar, and sardines together with the daily meal. They ate less broth and fruit but ate the citron and similar things.

In the Muslim world, there was a tension between the learning of the physicians, based on classical medicine and the religious tradition, based on the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the latter, disease of any kind came from Allah, perhaps as punishment for sin, and any attempt to avoid it was impious and anyway pointless, because no matter where one fled, if it was Allah’s will, one would die. The question of contagion was, therefore, in a sense irrelevant. To die of plague was considered martyrdom and martyrdom was highly desirable, as affording immediate entry into paradise, hence Ibn al-Wardi’s words, contrasting the attitude of the Muslim and the non-Muslim:

The dwellers of Sis are happy with what afflicts us, and this is what you can expect from the enemies of the true religion. God will spread it to them soon so that He will put plague upon plague.

The plague is for Muslims a martyrdom and a reward, and for the unbelievers a punishment and a rebuke. When the Muslim endures misfortune, then patience is his worship. It has been established by our Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, that the plague-stricken are martyrs. This noble tradition is true and assures martyrdom. And this secret should be pleasing to the true believer. If someone says it causes infection and destruction, say: God creates and recreates. If the liar disputes the matter of infection and tries to find an explanation, I say that the Prophet, on him be peace, said: who was infected the first? If we acknowledge the plague’s devastation of the people, it is the will of the Chosen Doer. So it has happened again and again.

Ibn al-Wardi wrote some verses on the plague, two days before he died of it at Aleppo in 1349:

I am not afraid of the plague as others are – It is a martyrdom, or else a victory. If I die, I rest from rivalry and strife, If I live, my eye and ear [understanding] will be healed

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*tiraz  – officially produced textiles of the highest quality, generally with calligraphic inscriptions, or the factories where they were woven.

** zakat – alms-giving (2.5%), religiously mandated in Islam.

*** ansab – sacrificial alters from before Islam.

Owing to libraries being closed due to our present plague, I was not able to find a translation for Ibn al-Wardi’s text. The quotations here are taken from the internet and were often not credited. I believe the most probably sources are the following.

Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1977).

Michael W. Dols, “Ibn al-Wardi’s Risalah Al- Naba’ ‘An Al-Waba’, A Translation of a Major Source for the History of the Black Death in the Middle East,” in Dickran K. Kouymjian, ed. Near Eastern Numismatics,  Iconography, Epigraphy and History (Beirut; American University of Beirut, 1974).

There is an extensive literature on the Black Death, but an in interesting article on the different perceptions of contagion in Islam is:

 “There is no contagion, there is no evil portent”: Arabic Responses to Plague and Contagion in the Fourteenth Century, Robin S Reich – available on-line at www.academia.edu

And a useful survey of Arabic Plague literature:

Lawrence I. Conrad, Arabic Plague chronicles and treatises in Studia Islamica no.54 (1981) pp.51-93.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

Meditations in Time of Plague – Marcus Aurelius – c.161-180

The Meditations – literally “Things to One’s Self” – of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is one of the best known and best loved works of philosophy. Teaching American students European history and culture in the early 2000s, it was almost invariably the text they picked out as being the most interesting and “relevant”.

Marcus Aurelius was of the Stoic school of philosophy. As he tries to define a “good life” and a “good man”, the themes to which he returns again and again are the need to accept the workings of nature – including loss and death – to avoid being dominated by worldly desires, the importance of charity and kindness to all, but above all calm courage and resignation when faced with what cannot be changed.

All this becomes very personal when it is realized that much of the work was written against the background of the Antonine Plague. It began in 165-6 and devastated the Roman Empire, which recovered largely thanks to Marcus Aurelius’ firm leadership and enlightened policies, so much so that his reign was considered on balance a happy one.

Marcus Aurelius’ adopted brother and co-Emperor died of the plague; up to 10% of the population succumbed and, among many other results, tax revenues from Egypt plummeted; civic building works had to be suspended for fifteen years for lack of money and man-power; mining was disrupted, something reflected in the dramatic fall in lead pollution in Greenland ice cores*; the army was so depleted that new recruitment and immigration arrangements had to be made.

There is debate about the nature of the plague in question, which is described in some detail by the great physician Galen, but the fairly general consensus is that it was small pox **. He remarks that that the mortality rate was much higher among the poor and the slaves, and where people were crowded together, as in the army, and that this was characteristic of epidemics. Himself a Stoic, he bore the loss in a fire of all his possessions, including a vast collection of medical texts, with equanimity.

The Meditations seem to be personal jottings, not rigorously organized and intended for publication and this is, perhaps, their attraction. Himself in poor health, he had survived the plague and outlived his beloved wife, Faustina, and many of their children. He is writing to convince himself, not as an academic exercise.

Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations looking back over his life and, in a few very moving sentences, recalling and thanking those who had most influenced him:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father [who died when Marcus Aurelius was three] , modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.

From my tutor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy……

From Rusticus …..I learned….. to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus [ex-slave and one of the greatest Stoic philosophers], which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to trust to nothing but reason, not even for a moment; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding…….

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living in harmony with nature; and gravity without affectation; and to look carefully after the interests of friends; and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration…..

From Alexander the Platonic, rarely, unless absolutely necessary, to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relationship to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations…….

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice…..


Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, it is a violent stream, for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

The unripe grape, the ripe bunch, the dried grape, all are changes, not into nothing, but into something which does not yet exist.

Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

When a man kisses his child, said Epictetus, he should whisper to himself, “To-morrow maybe you will die.”

– But those are words of bad omen.

“No word is a word of bad omen,” said Epictetus, “which expresses any work of nature. Or if it is so, it is also a word of bad omen to speak of the ears of corn being reaped.”


Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal.

How many whole cities have met their end: Helike [destroyed in a tsunami in 373 B.C.], Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.

And all those you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him – all in the same short space of time.

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a drop of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.

To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint.

Like an olive that ripens and falls.

Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.


The Meditations are available on-line at www.archive.org

*The Antonine Plague Revisited, Richard Duncan-Jones, Actos 52 (2018) pp.41-72 and on-line at www.academia.edu

**Galen and the Plague, Rebecca Fleming, on-line at https://brill.com

In Praise of the Land of the Dead – a Harper’s Song – Egypt c.1300 B.C.

Some scholars consider that the description of a disease in the medical work known as the Ebers Papyrus (c.1500 B.C. but believed to be copied from earlier texts) refers to bubonic plague. It occurred to me that if this were the case, or if epidemics had been a feature of Pharaonic Egypt, there should be prayers or invocations, begging for the aid of the gods, and inscriptions recording the event. I could not find any evidence of such texts – which does not mean they do not exist.

This Funerary or Harper’s Song, dating from the time of the Pharoah Horemhab, successor after a brief period, to Tutankhamun, comes from the tomb of the Priest Neferhotep (Theban Tomb No.50). Perhaps because of the religious uncertainty provoked by Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, this was a time when songs played by harpers during the funeral rites had begun to question the traditional view of the afterlife. The tomb records three Harper’s Songs: one presenting the classic view, one sceptical and this one, firmly rejecting the current trend towards disbelief in the nature of the world to come.

All ye excellent nobles and gods of the graveyard,

Hearken to the praise-giving for the divine Father,

The worship of the honoured noble’s excellent ba [soul],

Now that he is a god ever-living, exalted in the West;

May they become a remembrance for posterity,

For everyone who comes to pass by.

I have heard those songs that are in the tombs of old,

What they tell in extolling life on earth,

In belittling the land of the dead.

Why is this done to the land of eternity?

The right and just that has no terrors?

Strife is abhorrent to it,

No one girds himself against his fellow;

This land that has no opponent.

All our kinsmen rest in it.

Since the time of the first beginning.

Those to be born to millions of millions,

All of them will come to it;

No one may linger in the land of Egypt,

There is none who does not arrive in it.

As to the time of deeds on earth;

It is the occurrence of a dream;

One says: “Welcome safe and sound”,

To him who reaches the West.

From: Ancient Egyptian Literature vol. II The New Kingdom, Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 1984 pp.115-6.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

For those interested in the medical aspect, a translation of the Ebers Papyrus is available on-line at www.hathitrust.org.

Seville and the Plague – 1649


The worst epidemic that Seville ever suffered was in 1649, the beginning of a long outbreak of plague, in what appear to have been its bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic forms. The city and the surrounding areas lost between a quarter and half of their inhabitants – estimates range from 60 000 to 150 000 –  and economic and demographic recovery took at least a century. Among many other illustrious dead were the painter Zurbarán and the great sculptor, Martinez Montañés; Murillo survived, but his art was deeply marked by the experience.

There are several contemporary accounts of this plague. The following extracts are taken from an anonymous report, which gives a great deal of information on the part played by the authorities, but especially the church, the religious orders and the confraternities. It describes both their efforts to appease the Deity, since it was considered beyond doubt that the plague was the direct consequence of sin, and the practical measures taken to relieve the sick.

The author, whose work is dated December 7th, 1649, describes the setting up of plague hospitals, the main one being in the Hospital de la Sangre, now known as Cinco Llagas and the seat of the Andalusian Parliament; the burial grounds and the great processions with two of Seville’s most powerful images: the Virgen de los Reyes and Cristo de San Agustín. The latter’s procession took place on July 2nd and, from that moment, according to the chroniclers, the plague began to abate.  The original image was destroyed in the Civil War in 1936, but official homage is still paid in gratitude on July 2nd each year.

The writer also pays touching tribute, by name, to many of the Sevillians, religious and lay, who collaborated in maintaining the city during the Plague, whether by bringing the Sacrament to the dying or giving medical care – most in these two categories died –  or by contributing money, carrying the sick to hospital or the dead to burial, burning contaminated clothes and bedding – at the Torre del Oro and elsewhere – and ensuring the provisioning of the city, in so far as possible.

The most dire misfortune, the most grievous events, a story most full of wretchedness, the despair of a terrible punishment filled with strange happenings, the most severe chastisement, with the greatest occasions for devotion ever recorded by the pen. Behold the sword of the just God stained with men without number. Behold Nineveh, the desolate; Jerusalem, reduced to nothing; and finally, from the map of pomp and splendour, the Christian Babylon has been almost annihilated – Seville destroyed by the epidemic which she has suffered in the year 1649……

Let us begin, then, by tracing the steps by which this grievous plague developed. As I say, the plague hid itself throughout Lent and then when the river overflowed its banks and necessities were lacking, many people died because they had no food. This scourge of hunger increased greatly and the state of the disaster could well be measured, for an egg – this is something really unbelievable – sold for twelve quarters and a chicken for four pieces of eight of silver……Whole neighbourhoods were flooded, especially the Alameda, so that it was necessary to move about by boat….

The plague was commonly said to have been brought to Triana by some gypsies with clothing* from Cadiz, but it is not for me to establish whether this being the place is a legitimate conclusion and well-founded. They all died and those of the house that concealed them paid for their wicked greed with their lives. This part of the city became infected and from there the spark flew to the heart of Seville and, finding plenty to feed its rage, the violence of its fury increased, so that the disaster could no longer be hidden…..

The Hospital [de la Sangre] was organized in such a way that, there were distributed among the 18 new wards, where there had never been patients before, 300 sick in some, in others 200 and in others 50, depending on the capacity of each, men and women being separated. Supplies and provisions, medicines and everything that was needed both for the sick and for the healthy who cared for them were kept in rooms well away for the area of contagion and were handed out in turn…..

There were three convalescent hospitals, one for women in the Hospital de San Lazaro, where there were normally 600 recuperating and two others for men, each with a capacity of 300; these were known one as S.Sebastian and the other as San Miguel…..

The fact is well known and I cannot deny my admiration as a just tribute to the pious generosity of the people of Seville. Scarcely had the plague revealed its face when Catholic liberality competed with the ardent charity of the noble citizens, who laboured most stubbornly. One man gave 12 beds for the sick ward, together with 600 ducats, and maintained them throughout the plague. The Illustrious Brothers of the House of Mercy gave 50 beds, with everything needful for them, and similarly maintained them until the Hospital closed and, not stopping there, they provided 1000 sets of clothes for the convalescent. Others, even if they could not imitate this level of open-handedness, moved by generous compassion, gave 20 beds, others eight, others four, others one, all lamenting that their wealth and possibilities did not match their desire to help……

Every day, on the steps [of the churches], there would be 200 and sometimes as many as 300 bodies and in the Church of El Salvador, there were usually a hundred…. And throughout the city, neither in the churches, nor in the cemeteries, was there a handbreadth of space unoccupied.

The unbearable stench led to the churches being closed and the Blessed Sacrament carried to some suitable place or nearby monastery. For the lack of anywhere to bury the dead, who were dying so fast and, in such numbers, the city authorities ordered that six enormous cemeteries should be created in different parts of town and that they should be duly consecrated…..

They were as follows: one above Colon, outside the Puerta Real; Another in the Alamilla, outside the Puerta de la Barqueta; another outside the Puerta de Macarena; another outside the Puerta de Triana, beside the Convent of N. Señora del Populo; another outside the Puerta del Ossario and another, which was as large as all the others put together, in San Sebastian**, beyond the Puerta de Xerez…..

Of the vast number of dead, I will repeat that which Marcus Aurelius said of another plague which Italy suffered in his day, as is recorded in the histories: that it was easier to count those who remained alive than to describe the number of the dead. The most certain opinion is that there 200 000 dead and in Seville alone 150 000 and this is confirmed by many doctors who followed the flight from the contagion. Great numbers of people left the city and fled to the countryside or their estates, so much so that the Sierra Morena became almost populated…

And so there was a heart-breaking lack of people left in the city and in the streets that usually served for the populace’s traffic and trade, not so much as a single person was to be seen. There was only a great quantity of clothes and things which the neighbours had thrown away. The few who were out and about showed in their faces the horror of death. It was mainly women of good family who were in the streets by day and by night, since the rest of the household was dead, seeking medicines, doctors or apothecaries for their husbands and children. But it was difficult to obtain any help in their search, for as regards medicines, the apothecaries were mostly dead, and although numerous people sought their aid, only twelve doctors were still alive and even fewer surgeons….

The quantity of goods that have been burned is immense: linens, precious paintings, delicate fabrics, cloths, hangings, gold, silver, silks and other jewels that pay homage, as it were, to the home; something indescribable and with a value to match the Indies. In this way and through this diligence, they purified the houses and made many vast bonfires, and in the streets, as in the houses, with cypress, laurel and rosemary and other scented herbs, they did much to protect the common health.

*The transmission of the plague in used clothes is mentioned over and over again in contemporary sources, both European and Middle Eastern, although the specific association with fleas was not known. Since the trade in used clothing was largely the prerogative of the Jewish community and of gypsies, this was one reason why they were so often accused of spreading the plague. Another source suggests that these clothes came to Cadiz from Algeria. A century later Miss Tully (see earlier post) is much concerned that the Jewish community in Tripoli were collecting and sending large quantities of clothing from plague-stricken households to Europe and tries to send a warning that they should on no account be accepted.

** All these places are still recognisable, although the gates were unfortunately torn down in the 19th c. Prado San Sebastian is now one of the bus stations of Seville and until 1972 was the site of the famous April Fair.

The text has been edited by Francisco Morales Padron in Memorias de Sevilla , but unfortunately I had no access to a copy and this rather rough translation is taken from the scan of the original publication available at www.fama2.us.es

A Litany in Time of Plague – Thomas Nashe 1592

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;

This world uncertain is;

Fond are life’s lustful joys;

Death proves them all but toys;

None from his darts can fly;

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Rich men, trust not in wealth,

Gold cannot buy you health;

Physic himself must fade.

All things to end are made,

The plague full swift goes by;

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Strength stoops unto the grave,

Worms feed on Hector brave;

Swords may not fight with fate,

Earth still holds open her gate.

“Come, come!” the bells do cry.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Wit with his wantonness

Tasteth death’s bitterness;

Hell’s executioner

Hath no ears for to hear

What vain art can reply.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!


Haste, therefore, each degree,

To welcome destiny;

Heaven is our heritage,

Earth but a player’s stage;

Mount we unto the sky.

I am sick, I must die.

    Lord, have mercy on us!

From the play Summer’s Last Will and Testament.

John of Burgundy: Advice for Avoiding the Black Death – 1365

Not surprisingly, a vast number of treatises on the plague, in many tongues, were written in response to the Black Death. One of the earliest was by John of Burgundy, of whom almost nothing is known. It was translated into various languages and widely diffused.

The following short section offers advice and, because of the belief that the disease was caused by bad air, perfumes – some Arabic texts maintain that violets were especially efficacious – and fumigation were standard prophylactics. Well into the 20th century, judges at the Old Bailey, carried posies of sweet smelling flowers and herbs, originally to ward off  “gaol fever” – typhus.

Concerning Prevention

First, you should avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pores, for the pores are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter, piercing the heart and corrupting the life force. Above all sexual intercourse should be avoided. You should eat little or no fruit, unless it is sour, and should consume easily-digested food and spiced wine diluted with water. Avoid mead and everything made with honey, and season food with strong vinegar. In cold or rainy weather you should light fires in your chamber and in foggy or windy weather you should inhale aromatics every morning before leaving home: ambergris, musk, rosemary and similar things if you are rich; zedoary, cloves, nutmeg, mace and similar things if you are poor. Also once or twice a week you should take a dose of good theriac the size of a bean. And carry in the hand a ball of ambergris or other suitable aromatic. Later, on going to bed, shut the windows and burn juniper branches, so that the smoke and scent fills the room. Or put four live coals in an earthenware vessel and sprinkle a little of the following powder on them and inhale the smoke through the mouth and nostrils before going to sleep: take white frankincense, labdanum, storax, calaminth, and wood of aloes and grind them to a very fine powder. And do this as often as a foetid or bad odour can be detected in the air, and especially when the weather if foggy or the air tainted, and it can protect against the epidemic.

If, however, the epidemic occurs during hot weather it becomes necessary to adopt another regimen, and to eat cold things rather than hot and also to eat more sparingly than in cold weather. You should drink more than you eat, and take white wine with water. You should also use large amounts of vinegar and verjuice in preparing food, but be spring with hot substances such as pepper, galingale or grains of paradise. Before leaving home in the morning smell roses, violets, lilies, white and red sandalwood, musk or camphor if the weather is misty or the air quality bad. Take theriac sparingly in hot weather, and not at all unless you are a phlegmatic or of a cold complexion. Sanguines and cholerics should not take theriac at all in hot weather but should take pomegranates, oranges, lemons, or quinces, or an electuary made of the three types of sandalwood, or a cold electuary or similar. You should use cucumbers, fennel, borage, bugloss and spinach, and avoid garlic, onions, leeks and everything else which generates excessive heat, such as pepper or grains of paradise, although ginger, cinnamon, saffron, cumin and other temperate substances can be used.  And if you should become extremely thirsty because of the hot weather, then drink cold water mixed with vinegar or barleywater regularly, for this is particularly beneficial to people of a cold and dry complexion and to thin people, and thirst should never be tolerated at such times.

If you should feel a motion of the blood like a fluttering or prickling, let blood flow from the nearest vein on the same side of the body, and the floor of the room in which you are lying should be sprinkled two or three times a day with cold water and vinegar, or with rosewater if you can afford it. The pills of Rasis*, if taken once a week, are an outstanding preventative and work for all complexions and in all seasons, but Avicenna and others recommend that they should be taken on a full stomach. They loosen the bowels a little, but the corrupt humours are expelled gradually. They should be made as follows: take Socotra aloes, saffron, myrrh and blend them in a syrup of fumitory. Anyone who adopts this regimen can be preserved, with God’s help, from pestilence caused by corruption of the air.

The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester, 1994, pp. 186-8

*Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (c. 854-925 A.D.) was a Persian scholar and a very important figure in the history of medicine.

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A Chinese Magistrate’s Solution to Plagues of Locusts – 1699


Huang Liu-Hung’s work: A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence is a fascinating handbook for local magistrates in Ch’ing China. It covers almost every sort of eventuality from how to an official should introduce himself to his new posting to cadastral surveys, choosing horses for the post service and prohibiting the maltreatment of servants. Surprisingly, it says nothing about epidemics or disease prevention, in spite of the fact that there had been serious epidemics in the 1640s and the state had involved itself by providing medicines and medical personnel, offering subsidies in particularly affected areas and subsidising coffins and help with funeral expenses – always of great importance in Chinese culture. Huang Liu-hung only mentions what to do in the case of a plague of locusts, such as is now threatening East Africa and the west coast of the Sub-Continent. It is possible that the relevant sections of his work have been omitted. His advice, given the sound good sense of most of the book is, to the modern reader, somewhat surprising.

A Sacrificial Address to the City God for the Avoidance of the Locust Disaster

It is the duty of the city god to harmonize the yin and yang elements in the universe, to protect the livelihood of the people, to prevent natural calamities, and to bestow blessings on the land.

Now it is the second month of summer, the locust larvae are climbing everywhere, moving slowly across the furrows and ridges. Soon they will flap their wings and the affliction they can cause will be grave indeed. They are like a gang of rebels breaking out in a vicious uprising. A superior magic force is needed to stamp them out at this moment. If we wait until the spread over a large area, it will be difficult to exterminate them all. They should be either captured or buried. The people will do their best, but this is not a man-made calamity. Only the power of the god can prevail. If the crop can be saved, it will be by the grace of the god; if the affliction can be averted, it will be done only under his authority. The god’s grace and authority are the only hope we can depend upon. We make this request sincerely in the hope the god will respond.

A Second Sacrificial Address on the Same Subject

The city god and the magistrate, my humble self, share the responsibility of ruling over this district. When there is a calamity, we must try to prevent it. When there is trouble, we must protect the people from its harmful effects. Such efforts are within the god’s spiritual authority and the magistrate’s official responsibility.

Now, while the people are busy working in the fields and the crops have not yet been harvested, the eggs of last year’s locusts have hatched out and spread on the ground. Half of the second wheat crop in the fields has already suffered devastation.

In the past ten days large swarms of locusts have arrived from the neighbouring district to the southwest. They flap their wings, climb over the furrows and relentlessly inundate the fields. The people scurry about and wail with sorrow, thinking that doomsday has arrived.

I humbly presented a request to the god earlier, but as yet no favourable response has been received. Could this natural calamity be so irrevocable that even the god has encountered difficulty in averting it? Could it be that the spring festival time is approaching and that the god is too busy with other matters? Or is it because I myself have failed in my duty that I lack the sincerity to evoke the god’s sympathy? When the people cannot prevent disaster, they appeal to the magistrate. When the magistrate cannot avert calamity for the people, he appeals to the god. The god is awe-inspiring and dwells in the spiritual world; can he not transmit the requests of the people and their officials to the Lord on High?

Of course, we understand the inevitability of natural calamities. When the locusts spread, they cover a thousand square li in which T’an-ch’eng is only a tiny spot. It is impossible for us to avoid the affliction. We believe this because we have exhausted our human effort to no avail. But the god should maintain a different view. In your infinite wisdom, you should be able to detect the onslaught of impending disaster before ordinary mortals can perceive such happenings.

Oh god, please exterminate this plague quickly so that they will not do harm to our grain. Prevent them from laying eggs in the field so that the people may have the hope of an autumn harvest! Please bestow upon us this favour! Please heed our request!

Eradication of Locusts and Their Larvae

During a drought following a flood, the locust larvae deposited in the fields are hatched by the hot sun. The locusts develop rapidly and fly all over the place, destroying grain plants everywhere the alight. Although locusts are only insects, they are controlled by the god. If the magistrate prays with utmost sincerity, they will fly away with the wind. Even if they alight in the field, they will not bring harm to the crop. That was my experience when I was magistrate of T’an-ch’eng. My prayers have always been answered.

If the locusts come from a neighbouring district, they can be driven away by appealing to the city god. If locust larvae are found in the district, however, it will be difficult even for the city god to drive them away. The people should be mobilized to bury or burn the larvae, before they reach the locust stage. As an incentive, when people collect a certain amount of locust larvae they should be rewarded with the same amount of grain. Thus even if a locust disaster cannot be entirely avoided, its intensity can be reduced. It is my humble wish that all magistrates will take such precautionary measures in the interest of the people.

Huang Liu-hung, A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence, ed. and tr. Djang Chu, University of Arzona Press, Tucson, 1984, pp.513-5 and 613

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Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi Describes Plague, Famine and Cannibalism – Egypt 1200 A.D.

Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162-1231) was a physician and philosopher. He studied at one stage with Maimonides and Saladin was his patron. A prolific writer, primarily on medicine, his Account of Egypt is his best-known work in the West and the following is part of his account of the plague and famine he witnessed there in the year 1200, when the Nile failed to rise.

In this state of affairs, the year 597 A.H. arrived like a monster, whose rage was to wipe out everything that supports life. There was no longer any hope that the Nile would rise; food prices were already high, the provinces made desperate by drought, everyone foresaw food shortages and the fear of famine led to riots and disturbances. The inhabitants of the countryside and the villages fled into the main provincial towns. A large number of people emigrated to Syria, the Maghreb, the Hejaz and Yemen, where they scattered this way and that, like the people of Saba long ago. An infinite number also sought shelter in the cities of Misr and Cairo, where they suffered a terrible famine with an appalling mortality rate. This was because when the sun entered the sign of Capricorn, the air became infected and plague and a mortal disease began to spread. The poor, assailed by ever increasing famine, ate carrion, corpses, dogs, excrement and animal droppings. They even went further – so far as to eat little children. It was not unusual to catch people with little children that had been boiled or roasted. The Captain of the Guard of the town had those who committed this crime, or shared in such dishes, burned alive.

I, myself, saw a small child roasted in a basket. It was brought before the Provost, together with a man and a woman, who were said to be the father and mother of the child. He condemned them to be burned alive.

In the month of Ramadan, a corpse came to light in Misr, with all the flesh stripped away to be eaten and the legs tied exactly as cooks tie a sheep before cooking it. Galen* longed, but in vain, for the sight of such a skeleton and he tried everything possible to get his wish. All those who have made a study of anatomy have shared this desire.

When the poor first began to eat human flesh, the shock and horror caused by such extraordinary nourishment was so great that these crimes were the subject of every conversation and no-one tired of discussing it. But later, people became so used to it and even got a taste for such horrifying food, so that there were those who ate it from choice and even found means to store it. They thought up different ways of preparing the flesh and, once this behaviour became established, it spread throughout the provinces and there was no part of Egypt where it was not seen. Then, it no longer caused any surprise and the horror that was shown at first vanished completely. It was talked of and one heard it mentioned as something ordinary and unimportant.

One day, I saw a woman with a head wound, being dragged across a market by some working men. They had caught her when she was eating a small child, whose roasted body they had seized at the same time. The people who were in the market paid absolutely no attention to this, but went about their business and I did not see a single sign of shock or horror. This astonished me much more than the crime itself. To tell the truth, this indifference was simply the result of their senses having been assailed so many times by such examples of cruelty, that it had become part of the range of things accepted as normal and no longer apt to arouse a sense of astonishment.

One day, there was a woman with a child who had been recently weaned and was nice and chubby. I admired the child and warned the woman to be very careful of it. A propos of which, she told me that as she was walking along the edge of a canal, a strong powerful man threw himself on her and tried to snatch her child. She couldn’t think of any way to protect it except by throwing it on the ground with herself on top of it. until a man on horseback who happened to be passing, forced the man to leave her alone. She added that the evil wretch had watched avidly for any one of the child’s limbs that might appear from beneath her, in order to drag it out and eat it. She said that the child had been ill for a long time as a result of being torn between them, as the she and the ferocious abductor fought, one to seize and one to keep him.

Abd al-Latif tells horror story after horror story that either he had witnessed personally or that were reported in the tribunals or by reliable friends.

When they burnt some wretch convicted of eating human flesh, next morning they found the corpse devoured – it was eaten all the more willingly, since it was already roasted and there was no need to cook it.

He is particularly appalled that the habit passed from the starving populace to the wealthier classes, becoming a choice, not a desperate bid for survival.

If we were to report all the stories of this kind that we have heard tell or witnessed with our own eyes, we would run the risk of being suspected of exaggeration or accused of pointless chattering. Everything that we have said that we saw for ourselves, were things that we happened to witness. We did not go and seek out places where such things might be seen – we witnessed them by pure chance, because far from seeking them out, we avoided them as often as possible, because the sight filled us with the greatest horror. Those, on the other hand, who were at the Provost’s house and hence present at these tragic events, saw every kind of example, all day and all night long…..

Near the Mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun, there were people who kidnapped men. A bookseller, an elderly man, somewhat overweight, was one of those who used to sell us books. He fell into their trap and had the greatest difficulty in escaping, more dead than alive.

The dead were everywhere – in Cairo, Abd al-Latif calculates the mortality as being between a hundred and five hundred a day – and, as elsewhere, burial was a terrible problem with the corpses being abandoned or simply dumped on open ground. Things were no better in the countryside and the Nile itself was choked with bodies.

Often a traveller would pass a large village without finding a single living inhabitant. He would see houses wide open and the bodies of those who had lived there stretched out opposite each other, some already decayed, some quite fresh. Often, he would find all the furnishings of the house with no one left to take possession of them. What I am saying was told me by several different people, whose accounts confirm each other. One of them said:

“We entered a village and we did not find a single living creature on the earth below, or in the air above. Having gone into the houses, the people there appeared in a scene exactly as Allah says in the Qur’an: ‘We harvested them and they were exterminated.’ We saw the inhabitants of each house stretched out dead, husband, wife and children. From there we went on to another village, where we were told there used to be four hundred weaving workshops and saw the same desolate sight as in the first place. We saw a weaver dead beside his loom, with all his family around him, lifeless. This reminded me of another text from the Qur’an: ‘One cry was heard and they all perished.’ We went on again,” said the same person, “to another village and found things in the same state: not one living soul and all the inhabitants victims of death. As we had to stay there in order to sow the land, we had to hire people to remove the bodies that were all around us and throw them into the Nile. We paid one piece of silver for ten bodies. In the end”, this person added, “the people of this place were replaced by wolves and hyenas, who fed on their corpses.”

He describes the countless dead along the routes used to flee the plague and famine, and describes yet a new tragedy: the seizing and enslaving of free men and women in the general chaos, besides young people being sold in the hope they would at least be fed. Cities as well as the countryside were abandoned.

Even in Cairo, the palaces, houses and shops in the center of the city and in the best quarters were for the most part empty and abandoned. So much so, that in the busiest part of town a residence with fifty rooms stood empty. Only four were in use by people left there to guard the place. Today, the people of Cairo still use roof beams, doors and other woodwork to feed their hearths and ovens.

There is, however, one remarkable thing: among those people who had always, up to this time, been unfortunate, some have made their fortunes this year. Some heaped up wealth by trading in grain, others by rich inheritances. Others became wealthy without anyone understanding the cause or source of their good fortune. Blessed be He who gives or withholds His blessings according to His wishes and who distributes His favour to all creatures.

*Dissection was absolutely forbidden in Islam, as it was in the Roman Empire at the time of Galen, to the great frustration of medical men. It was equally prohibited in Christendom, but during the Black Death, a few years later, Pope Clement VI gave permission for dissection as part of an effort to try and understand and control the plague.

From Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, Relation de l’Egypte, tr. Silvestre de Sacy, Paris 1810, Book II, Ch.2, pp.360-376. Available online, together with the Arabic text at www.archive.org

Leonard Woolf on Distributing Quinine in a Malaria Epidemic Ceylon – 1909 and Samuel Baker on Endemic Diseases and their Causes Ceylon – 1854

Sometime ago there was a severe outbreak of fever in some villages in West Giruwa pattu and as the only course open to me I appointed paid distributors: but I stopped it almost immediately as they are useless. I asked that if similar cases occurred again a special dispenser might be sent but was informed that this was impossible. I urged that it was a mere waste of quinine and time to give the powders to headmen or daily paid distributors for distribution. In the first place the people don’t take it and in the second it is quite unfair to expect an unpaid headman to spend the time required for a house to house visitation – which must after all be the only way of doing any good – besides all his other duties. As for distribution at dispensaries, people in the majority of cases only go to dispensaries when they are already ill. Both the D.M.O. [District Medical Officer] Tangalle, Dr Cooke and the Mudaliyar were agreed that it is only from a man of the class of a dispenser going round from house to house, that the people will really take the quinine as a prophylactic: they will only take it from a man they can call a ‘Doctor’. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole amount of money spent in quinine distribution in this District has been wasted not for anyone’s fault but because the system is wrong: and I imagine that the money would have paid for at least one dispenser who working regularly in one small area might have done much good. I was pleased to find this view has high authority in Prof. Ross.

Leonard Woolf is too well known to need any introduction. His unsuccessful effort at rationalising government policies comes from The Hambantota Diaries 1908-1911: Records of a Colonial Administator, reprinted Sri Lanka, 1962, p.110. This quote is preceded by a letter to The Times from Ronald Ross, Professor of Tropical Medicine, on the importance and difficulties of distributing quinine – which must be gratis – and the need to back it up with rigorous control of mosquitoes and their breeding grounds.


It may no doubt appear very enticing to the lovers of such things, to hear of the gorgeous colours and prodigious size of butterflies, moths and beetles; the varieties of reptiles, the flying foxes, the gigantic crocodiles; the countless species of waterfowl &c; but one very serious fact is apt to escape the observation of the general reader, that wherever insect and reptile life is most abundant, so sure is that locality full of malaria and disease.

Ceylon does not condescend to second-class diseases: there is no such thing as influenza; hooping-cough, measles, scarlatina, &c are rarely, if ever, heard of; we ring the changes on four first-class ailments – four scourges, which alternately ascend the throne of pestilence and annually reduce the circle of our friends – cholera, dysentery, small-pox and fever. This year (1854) there has been some dispute as to the routine of succession; they have all accordingly raged at one time.

The cause of infection in disease has long been a subject of controversy among medical men; but there can be little doubt that, whatever is the origin of the disease, the same is the element of infection. The question is, therefore, reduced to the prime cause of the disease itself. A theory that animalcules are the cause of the various contagious and infectious disorders has created much discussion; and though the opinion is not generally entertained by the faculty, the idea is so feasible, and so many rational arguments can be brought forward in its support, that I cannot help touching a topic so generally interesting.

Baker goes on to discuss various kinds of disease-producing organisms, particularly microscopic, and their relationship with climate.

Now, if some are discernible with the naked eye, and others are detected in such varying sizes, that some can only just be distinguished by the most powerful lens, is it not rational to conclude, that the smallest discernible to human intelligence is but the medium of a countless race? That millions of others still exist, which are too minute for any observation?

Observe the particular quarters of a city which suffer most severely during the prevalence of an epidemic. In all dirty narrow streets, where the inhabitants are naturally of a low uncleanly class, the cases will be tenfold. Thus, filth is admitted to have at least the power of attracting disease, and we know that it not only attracts, but generates animalcules; therefore, filth, insects and disease are ever seen to be closely linked together.

He discusses the advantages of fumigation and continues:

The great purifier of Nature is a violent wind, which usually terminates an epidemic immediately; this would naturally carry before it all insect life with which the atmosphere might be impregnated, and the disease disappears at the same moment……Every person is aware that unwholesome air is quite as poisonous to the human system as impure water….

Samuel Baker’s theories may not be entirely correct, but his idea that there were disease-carrying organisms too small to be seen by any microscope available at the time was ahead of the general opinion of the day. He was an extremely remarkable and energetic character. After building bridges and railways in what is now Eastern Europe, he spent a number of years in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he founded Nuwara Eliya as an agricultural settlement and hill-station. After the death of his first wife, he returned to Eastern Europe and there effected the dramatic and romantic rescue of a Hungarian Christian slave girl, destined for the Pasha of Vidin. They married and she accompanied him on his journeys of exploration in Africa. At the request of the Khedive Ismail, Baker led expeditions to the south – to the area where the janajaweed are still operating – to suppress the slave trade, something in which they naturally felt a personal interest. He tells the story in Ismailia (1874) and Pat Shipman in The Stolen Woman (2004) gives and excellent account of Florence Baker’s part in his adventures.

The quotation given above is from:

Samuel W. Baker, Eight Years in Ceylon, 1855, reprinted Sri Lanka, 1983 pp.123-5.

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.