Post-classical history



THE Black Death arrived in Sicily early in October 1347, about three months before it reached the mainland. According to Michael of Piazza,1 a Franciscan friar who wrote his history some ten years later, twelve Genoese galleys brought the infection to the port of Messina. Where they came from is unknown; possibly also from the Crimea, though they must have left the area several months before the galleys which bore the Black Death from Caffa to Genoa and Venice. Nor can one now know whether the disease was borne by rats and fleas or was already rampant among members of the crew; the chronicler’s description of ‘sickness clinging to their very bones’ suggests the latter.

Within a few days the plague had taken a firm grasp on the city. Too late to save themselves, the citizens turned on the sailors who had brought them this disastrous cargo and drove them from the port. With their going, the Black Death was scattered around the Mediterranean but Messina’s sufferings were no lighter for its dispersion. With hundreds of victims dying every day and the slightest contact with the sick seeming a guarantee of rapid infection, the population panicked. The few officials who might have organized some sort of measures to mitigate the danger were themselves among the first to perish. The people of Messina fled from their doomed city into the fields and vineyards of southern Sicily, seeking safety in isolation and carrying the plague with them through the countryside.

When the first victims reached the neighbouring city of Catania they were lodged in the hospital and kindly treated. But as soon as the Catanians realized the scale and nature of the disaster they concluded that, by accepting the refugees, they were condemning themselves to the same fate. Strict control over immigration was introduced and it was decreed that any plague victim who had already arrived and subsequently perished should be buried in pits outside the walls. ‘So wicked and timid were the Catanians,’ wrote Michael of Piazza, ‘that they refused even to speak to any from Messina, or to have anything to do with them, but quickly fled at their approach.’ What was wickedness in the eyes of the doomed of Messina must have seemed elementary prudence to the menaced of Catania. The same pattern of behaviour was to be repeated all over Europe but rarely did it do any good to those who sought to save themselves by cutting themselves off from their neighbours. The Black Death had already breached the walls of Catania and nothing could stop it running riot through the population.

The Messinese now appealed to the Patriarch Archbishop of Catania to allow the relics of St Agatha to be taken from Catania to Messina. The Patriarch agreed but the Catanians, not unnaturally feeling that charity began at home and that St Agatha should remain at her post in her own cathedral, rose in protest. ‘They tore the keys from the sacristan and stoutly rebuked the Patriarch, saying that they would rather die than allow the relics to be taken to Messina.’ The Patriarch, who must have been a man of singular courage, accepted the mob’s decision but insisted at least on dipping some of the relics in water and personally taking the water with him to Messina.

‘The aforesaid Patriarch,’ reads Michael of Piazza’s account,

landed at Messina carrying with him the holy water … and in that city there appeared demons transfigured into the shape of dogs, who wrought grievous harm upon the bodies of the citizens; so that men were aghast and dared not go forth from their houses. Yet by common consent, and at the wish of the Archbishop, they determined to march devoutly around the city reciting litanies. While the whole population was thus processing around the streets, a black dog, bearing a drawn sword in his paws, appeared among them, gnashing with his teeth and rushing upon them and breaking all the silver vessels and lamps and candlesticks on the altars, and casting them hither and thither …. So the people of Messina, terrified by this prodigious vision, were all strangely overcome by fear.

This description exemplifies the curious blend of sober eye-witness reporting and superstitious fantasy which is characteristic of so many similar chronicles. How much of it should one believe? How much of it, for that matter, did Michael of Piazza believe himself? Rabies was endemic in Sicily and, since nobody can have had the time or energy to keep mad dogs in check, it is not surprising that there should have been an unusally large number running in the streets. In the circumstances the panic-stricken Sicilian can hardly be blamed for detecting some supernatural influence in their activities. But did the chronicler really believe that he, or some other reliable witness, had actually seen a black dog with a drawn sword in its paws? Or was the statement no more than an expression in symbolic terms of the chronicler’s belief in the dog’s daemonic possession? Probably Michael of Piazza himself would hardly have known the answer. Medieval man skated on the thinnest possible ice of verified knowledge with beneath him unplumbed and altogether terrifying depths of ignorance and superstition. Let the ice break and with it was lost all grasp on reality and all capacity for objective, logical analysis.

The people of Messina, disappointed of St Agatha’s relics, then set off barefoot in procession to a shrine some six miles away where was to be found an image of the Virgin said to possess exceptional powers. Once again they were discomfited and, in their discomfiture, Michael of Piazza saw another proof that the plague was God’s retribution on his erring people.

This aforesaid Mother of God, when she saw and drew near unto the city, judged it to be so hateful and so profundly stained with blood and sin that she turned her back upon it, being not only unwilling to enter therein, but even abhorring the very sight thereof. For which cause the earth yawned open and the horse which bore the image of the Mother of God stood fixed and motionless as a rock.

Eventually the animal was bullied or cajoled into the city and the Virgin lodged in Santa Maria la Nuova, the largest church of the city. But little good did it do the unfortunate Messinese. ‘… this coming of the image availed naught; nay, the pestilence raged so much the more violently that one man could not succour another but the greater part of the citizens deserted Messina and were scattered abroad.’

After his return from Messina the gallant Patriarch succumbed to the disease which he had combated so stoutly. He was buried in the Cathedral at Catania. By his behaviour and by his death he set a standard which was to be matched by few indeed of his peers.


Quickly the plague spread over Sicily, ravaging with especial violence the towns and villages at the western end. It was not for long confined to such narrow limits. Sicily, as Professor Renouard dryly remarks,2 ‘fulfilled its natural mission as a centre of the Mediterranean world’. From thence it spread probably to North Africa by way of Tunis; certainly to Corsica and Sardinia; the Balearics, Almeria, Valencia and Barcelona on the Iberian peninsula; and to Southern Italy. It is remarkable, in this as in every other epidemic of bubonic plague, how closely the disease followed the main trade-routes.3 Largely, of course, this is a token of the role which the rat played in the propagation of plague. But whether the Black Death travelled by rat, by unescorted flea or by infected sailor, ship was the surest and most rapid means. The Black Death, indeed, is peculiar among plagues in that the particularly high incidence of its pneumonic variant meant that it struck inland with unusual vigour. But even though it could thus attain the hinterland, its first target was still the coastal towns. It travelled from the Crimea to Moscow not overland but by way of Italy, France, England and the Hanseatic ports.4

The three great centres for the propagation of the plague in Southern Europe were Sicily, Genoa and Venice. It seems to have arrived more or less simultaneously at the latter ports some time in January, 1348. But it was Pisa, attacked a few weeks later,5 which provided the main point of entry to Central and Northern Italy. From there it moved rapidly inland to Rome and Tuscany. It had begun the march which was not to end until the whole continent of Europe had been blanketed by death.

In Italy the previous years had provided a chapter of disasters less dramatic but little less damaging than those which had overtaken the unfortunate Chinese. A crescendo of calamity was reached shortly before the plague arrived.6 Earthquakes had done severe damage in Naples, Rome, Pisa, Bologna, Padua and Venice. The wine in the casks had become turbid: ‘a statement which,’ as the nineteenth-century German historian Hecker hopefully remarked, ‘may be considered as furnishing a proof that changes causing a decomposition of the atmosphere had taken place.’ From July 1345 six months of almost continuous rain had made sowing impossible in many areas. The following spring things were little better. The corn crop was less than a quarter of the usual and almost all the domestic fowls had to be slaughtered for want of feeding stuffs. Even for the richest states and cities it was difficult to replace the loss by imports. ‘In 1346 and 1347 there was a severe shortage of basic foodstuffs … to the point where many people died of hunger and people ate grass and weeds as if they had been wheat.’7 Near Orvieto the bridges were washed away by the floods and the damage done to communications all over Italy made the work of feeding the hungry still more difficult.8

Inevitably prices soared. The price of wheat doubled in the six months prior to May 1347, and even bran became too costly for the poor. In April 1347 a daily ration of bread was being issued to 94,000 people in Florence; prosecutions for all minor debts were suspended by the authorities and the gates of the prisons thrown open to all except serious criminals. It is said that four thousand Florentines died either of malnutrition or from diseases which, if malnutrition had not first existed, would never have proved fatal.9And yet of all the cities of Italy, Florence, with its great wealth, its powerful and sophisticated administration and its relatively high standards of education and of hygiene, was best equipped to cope with the problems of famine and disease.

Financial difficulties in Florence and Siena, which the agricultural problem complicated but did not create, made things even worse. The great finance house of the Peruzzi was declared bankrupt in 1343, the Acciaiuoli and the Bardi followed in 1345. By 1346 the Florentine houses alone had lost 1.7 million florins and virtually every bank and merchant company was in difficulties. It was an economic disaster without precedent.10 Even if the grain had been available it would have been hard for the cities of Tuscany to find the money to purchase it.

The final and perhaps the most dangerous element in this sombre picture was the political disorder which was an almost invariable feature of fourteenth-century Italy. There were, said Professor Caggese,11 no ‘events of universal import’ but only a multiplicity of ‘local dramas’. These dramas turned Italy into a bloody patch-work of bitter and seemingly unending squabbles. The Guelphs fought the Ghibellines, the Orsini fought the Colonna, Genoa fought Venice, the Visconti fought everybody and marauding German freebooters preyed on what was left. Rome was demoralized by the disappearance of the Papacy to Avignon and shaken by the revolution of Rienzo. Florence had recently experienced the rising of Brandini. Naples was in turmoil as Lewis of Hungary pursued his vendetta against Queen Joanna, the murderer of his brother.

For the nobles and the warriors there was, at least, glamour, excitement and a chance of booty. For the common people there was nothing except despairing fear, a total and disastrous lack of confidence in what the future might hold for them. What has been argued of Europe as a whole is, a fortiori, true of Italy. The people were physically in no state to resist a sudden and severe epidemic and psychologically they were attuned to an expectation and supine acceptance of disaster. They lacked the will to fight; almost, one might think, they welcomed the termination of their troubles. To speak of a collective death-wish is to trespass into the world of metaphysics. But if ever there was a people with a right to despair of life, it was the Italian peasantry of the mid-fourteenth century.


‘Oh, happy posterity,’ wrote Petrarch of the Black Death in Florence, ‘who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’12 The Black Death is associated more closely with Florence than with any other city; so much so that in contemporary and even more recent accounts it is sometimes referred to as ‘The Plague of Florence’. Partly this is because Florence at that period was one of the greatest cities of Europe and certainly the first of them to feel the full force of the epidemic. Partly it is because the plague raged there with exceptional intensity; certainly more severely than in Rome, Paris or Milan and at least as violently as in London or Vienna. But most of all Florence owes its notoriety to the terms in which its sufferings were described. In his introduction to The Decameron Boccaccio wrote what is undoubtedly and deservedly the best-known account of the Black Death and probably the most celebrated eye-witness account of any pestilence in any epoch.13 One or two sentences from it have already appeared in this book but no account of the Black Death would be complete unless it were quoted extensively.

‘In Florence,’ wrote Boccaccio,

despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.

… Which maladies seemed to set entirely at naught both the art of the physician and the virtues of the physic; indeed, whether it was that the disorder was of a nature to defy such treatment, or that the physicians were at fault – besides the qualified there was now a multitude both of men and women who practised without having received the slightest tincture of medical science – and, being in ignorance of its source, failed to apply the proper remedies; in either case … almost all … died, and in most cases without any fever or other attendant malady …

In which circumstances … divers apprehensions and imaginations were engendered in the minds of such as were left alive; inclining almost all of them to the same harsh resolution; to wit, to shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them, thinking thereby to make each his own health secure. Among whom there were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much as a preservative against seizures of this kind. Wherefore, they banded together, and, disassociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking very moderately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines, holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them, and diverting their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise. Others, the bias of whose minds was in the opposite direction, maintained that to drink freely, to frequent places of public resort, and to take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil: and that which they affirmed they also put into practice, so far as they were able, resorting day and night now to this tavern, now to that, drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure, and by preference making the houses of others, as it were, their inns, if they but saw in them aught that was particularly to their taste or liking; which they were readily able to do because the owners, seeing death imminent, had became as reckless of their property as of their lives; so that most of the houses were open to all comers, and no distinction observed between the stranger who presented himself and the rightful lord…. In this extremity of our city’s sufferings and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abused and all but totally dissolved, for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick or so hard beset for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.

Not a few there were who belonged to neither of the two said parties, but kept a middle course between them … living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetites, and not as recluses. They therefore walked abroad, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and dying, and the odours of drugs.

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

… Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that showed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women that, in the horror thereof, brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and, oftentimes, husband by wife; nay, what is more and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers…. In consequence of which dearth of servants and dereliction of the sick by neighbours, kinsfolk and friends, it came to pass – a thing, perhaps, never before heard of – that no woman, however dainty, fair or well-born, shrank, when stricken by the disease, from the ministrations of a man, no matter whether he were young or no, or scrupled to expose to him every part of her body, with no more shame than if he had been a woman, submitting of necessity to that which her malady required; wherefrom, perchance, there resulted in after-time some loss of modesty in such as recovered …

It had been, as today it still is, the custom for the women that were neighbours or of kin to the deceased to gather in his house with the women that were most closely connected with him, to wail with them in common, while on the other hand his male kinsfolk and neighbours … assembled without, in front of the house, to receive the corpse; and so the dead man was borne on the shoulders of his peers, with funeral pomp of taper and dirge, to the church selected by him before his death. Which rites, as the pestilence waxed in fury, were either in whole or in great part disused and gave way to others of a novel order. For not only did no crowd of women surround the bed of the dying, but many passed from this life unregarded, and few indeed were they to whom were accorded the lamentations and bitter tears of sorrowing relations; nay, for the most part, their place was taken by the laugh, the jest, the festal gathering; observances which the women, domestic piety in large measure set aside, had adopted with very great advantage to their health. Few also there were whose bodies were attended to the church by more than ten or twelve neighbours, and those not the honourable and respected citizens, but a sort of corpse-carrier drawn from the baser ranks, who called themselves becchini and performed such offices for hire, would shoulder the bier and, with hurried steps, carry it, not to the church of the dead man’s choice, but to that which was nearest at hand, with four or six priests in front and a candle or two, or, perhaps none; nor did the priests distress themselves with too long and solemn an office, but with the aid of the becchini hastily consigned the corpse to the first tomb which they found untenanted…. Many died daily or nightly in the public streets; of many others, who died at home, the departure was hardly observed by their neighbours, until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings; and what with their corpses and the corpses of others who died on every hand the whole place was a sepulchre.

It was the common practice of most of the neighbours, moved no less by fear of contamination by the putrefying bodies than by charity towards the deceased, to drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands, aided, perhaps, by a porter, if a porter was to be had, and to lay them round in front of the doors, where any one that made the round might have seen, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have biers brought up or, in default, planks whereon they laid them. Nor was it only once or twice that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses, at once; but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred, one bier sufficing for husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and so forth. And times without number it happened that, as two priests bearing the cross were on their way to perform the last office for some one, three or four biers were brought up by the porters in rear of them, so that, whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six, or eight, or sometimes more. Nor, for all their number, were their obsequies honoured by either tears, or lights, or crowds of mourners; rather it was to come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today….

As consecrated ground there was not in extent sufficient to provide tombs for the vast multitude of corpses which day and night, and almost every hour, were brought in eager haste to the churches for interment, least of all, if ancient custom were to be observed and a separate resting-place assigned to each, they dug for each graveyard, as soon as it was full, a huge trench in which they laid the corpses as they arrived by hundreds at a time, piling them up as merchandise is stowed in the hold of a ship, tier upon tier, each covered with a little earth, until the trench would hold no more. But I spare to rehearse with minute particularity each of the woes that came upon our city, and say in brief that, harsh as was the tenor of her fortunes, the surrounding country knew no mitigation; for there – not to speak of the castles, each, as it were a little city in itself – in sequestered villages, or on the open champaign, by the wayside, on the farm, in the homestead; the poor, hapless husbandmen and their families, forlorn of physician’s care or servants’ tendance, perished day and night alike, not as men but rather as beasts. Wherefore they too, like the citizens, abandoned all rule of life, all habit of industry, all counsel of prudence; nay, one and all, as if expecting each day to be their last, not merely ceased to aid Nature to yield her fruit in due season of their beasts and their lands and their past labours, but left no means unused, which ingenuity could devise, to waste their accumulated store; denying shelter to their oxen, asses, sheep, goats, pigs, fowls, nay even to their dogs, man’s most faithful companions, and driving them out into the fields to roam at large amid the unsheaved, nay unreaped corn …

But enough of the country! What need we add but (reverting to the city) that … it is believed without any manner of doubt, between March and the ensuing July, upwards of a hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of the city of Florence, which before the deadly visitation would not have been supposed to contain so many people! How many grand palaces, how many stately homes, how many splendid residences, once full of retainers, of lords, of ladies, were now left desolate of all, even to the meanest servant! How many families of historic fame, of vast ancestral domains and wealth proverbial, found now no scion to continue the succession! How many brave men, how many fair ladies, how many gallant youths, whom any physician, were he Galen, Hippocrates or Aesculapius himself, would have pronounced in the soundest of health, broke fast with their kinsfolk, comrades and friends in the morning, and when evening came, supped with their forefathers in the other world!

Boccaccio used this description as the preamble to his Decameron; a stark background against which he was to create a miracle of light and vivid fantasy. It is only reasonable to consider whether, in the interests of dramatic contrast, he did not portray the Black Death in Florence in even gloomier colours than it deserved. Certainly he was not anxious to stress the happier side: the selfless devotion of certain nuns or doctors, the efforts of the city government to keep going some sort of order and administration. Certainly, too, few cities suffered as much as Florence. But so much of Boccaccio’s detail is to be found in the records of contemporary chroniclers in France, Germany and England as well as Italy, that no one can doubt its essential truth.

The headlong flight from the cities, abandoning possessions and leaving houses open to all the world; the ruthless desertion of the sick, to meet their end as best they might, with no company but their own; the hurried, sordid burials in great communal pits; crops wasting in the fields and cattle wandering untended over the countryside – such details are the common currency of the chroniclers. On some points, even, it seems that Boccaccio does not do full justice to the horror: other reports, for instance, give more attention to the sinister role of the becchini,14 brutalized monsters, their life not worth twenty-four hours’ purchase, who would force their way into the houses of the living and tear them away to join the dead unless the men paid for their safety with a handsome bribe or the women with their virtue.

In its picturesque detail, therefore, one must accept Boccaccio’s account as accurate and authentic. But the same cannot be said for his statistics. His estimate of a hundred thousand dead within the city is patently exaggerated. By 1345 the population of Florence was already declining from its zenith of some fifty years before. The evidence of the number of bread tickets issued in April 1347 suggests a population of well over ninety thousand15 and the most authoritative modern estimate similarly puts it at between eighty-five and ninety-five thousand, with a slight preference for the higher figure.16 Unless Florence was virtually unique it seems impossible that more than two thirds and unlikely that much more than half of these can have died during the six months of the plague. In the much smaller but in many ways comparable cities of San Gimignano, Siena and Orvieto, analysis of the available data suggests a death rate of about 58 per cent in the first17 and 50 per cent (or a little more) in the others.18 One could not be far wrong if one guessed that between forty-five and sixty-five thousand Florentines died of the Black Death.

Boccaccio’s estimate, though extravagant, was not wholly fantastical. It is noteworthy, too, that he qualified it with some surprise that the population of the city should have turned out to be so much greater than had been generally believed. In this he was more cautious than many of his contemporaries who manipulated or invented statistics with almost inconceivable levity. Dr Coulton has referred to the ‘chronic and intentional vagueness’ of the medieval mind when confronted by a set of figures and quotes as an example the action of the English parliament which, in 1371, fixed the level of a tax on the basis that there were some forty thousand parishes in the kingdom, while, in fact, the most cursory study of readily available records would have shown that there were less than nine thousand.19

Partly this may have been due to the intractability of Roman numerals for complicated multiplication or division but there seems too to have been genuine indifference to the need for, indeed the very possibility of, precision. A large figure was a picturesque adornment to an argument but not part of the basic data from which a conclusion was drawn. It might be expressed as though exactly calculated but this was merely so as to heighten the dramatic effect. When the Pope was assured by his advisers that the Black Death had cost the lives of 42,836,486 thoughout the world, or the losses in Germany were estimated at 1,244,434,20 what was meant was that an awful lot of people had died.

The estimates of chroniclers are not always so nonsensicaL When the Chronicler of Este21 said that, in and around Naples, sixty-three thousand people were killed by the plague in two months, the figure was high but not impossible. It is again unlikely that the Chronicler of Bolgona was right in saying that three out of every five people died22 but there are contemporary historians who maintain that in certain Italian cities the mortality rate was in the region of 60 per cent.23 But, right or wrong, neither of these writers was convinced of or even particularly concerned about the literal accuracy of his figures; the estimate was an expression in vivid and easily remembered form of the enormity of his experience. The material for an even slightly accurate census did not exist and the contemporary scholar, extrapolating from a few verified facts, is more likely to arrive at a sensible answer than the medieval chronicler dependent on his own eyes and a vivid imagination and convinced, anyway, that the matter was one of trivial importance.


Though the Florentines were subjected to almost intolerable pressure it does not seem that the machinery of government ever broke down altogether. The same is true of the other Italian cities. Venice was one of the first to be afflicted; not surprisingly, since its position as chief European port of entry for goods from the East was bought at the cost of seventy major epidemics in seven hundred years.

At the worst of the Black Death six hundred Venetians a day were said to be dying; this rate can hardly have been sustained for long but is by no means incredible.24 On 20 March, 1348, the Doge, Andrea Dandolo, and the Great Council appointed a panel of three noblemen to consider measures to check the spread of the plague.25 A few days later the panel reported its recommendations. Remote burial places were designated; one at S. Erasmo at what is now the Lido, another on an island called S. Marco Boccacalme which seems since to have vanished into the lagoon.26 A special service of barges was provided to carry corpses to the new graveyards. All the dead, it was ruled, were to be buried at least five feet underground. Within the city itself beggars were forbidden to exhibit corpses in the streets, as was their macabre custom, and various measures of relief were adopted, including the release of all debtors from gaol. Surgeons were exceptionally allowed to practise medicine. Strict control of immigration was introduced and any ship which tried to evade it was threatened with burning. Either in this epidemic or possibly the next a quarantine station was set up at the Nazarethum where voyagers returning from the Orient were isolated for forty days – the period, apparently, being fixed by analogy to Christ’s suffering in the wilderness.

But such precautions, even though the Great Council did what it could to enforce them, came too late to save the city. The dead, as in Florence, were numbered at a hundred thousand; the estimate seems to have had even less in the way of a factual basis. Doctors, in particular, suffered and within a few weeks almost all were dead or had fled the city. A certain Francesco of Rome was a Health Officer in Venice for seventeen years. When he retired he received an annuity of twenty-five gold ducats as a reward for staying in Venice during the Black Death ‘when nearly all physicians withdrew on account of fear and terror’. When asked why he did not flee with the rest he answered proudly: ‘I would rather die here than live elsewhere.’27

Even harsher measures of control were tried in other cities. In Milan, when cases of the plague were first discovered, all the occupants of the three houses concerned, dead or alive, sick or well, were walled up inside and left to perish.28 It is hard to believe that this drastic device in fact served any useful purpose but for this or some other reason the outbreak seems to have been postponed by several weeks and Milan was the least afflicted of the large Italian cities. The technique of entombment was sometimes employed by the householder as well as by the authorities. In Salé, Ibn al Khatīb records, Ibn Abu Madyan walled up himself, his household and a plentiful supply of food and drink and refused to leave the house until the plague had passed. His measures were entirely successful: a fact disturbing to those who believed that the atmosphere had been corrupted and that bricks and mortar could consequently be no impediment to the disease.

Boccaccio, in fact, did less than justice to the efforts of the city fathers to control the plague in Florence. A committee of eight was set up from among the wisest and most respected citizens and was given something close to dictatorial powers. But when it came to the point there was not much which even the wisest of committees could achieve. Their regulations were largely concerned with the removal of decaying matter from the markets and the dead and dying from the streets – sensible enough objects but, by themselves, not likely to save the city. Nor, when the plague was at its worst, did the personnel exist to ensure that even so modest a policy was carried out.

Pistoia, where the civil ordinances published during the Black Death have been preserved, provides an unusually clear picture both of the efforts which the authorities made to preserve the citizens and the limitations imposed by their ignorance and the weakness of the machinery of government.29 On 2 May 1348, when the first cases of the Black Death were beginning to appear in the vicinity, the Council enacted nine pages of regulations intended to guard the town against infection. No one was to visit the Pisan or Luccan states where the plague was already rampant. If such a visit were made then, even though the citizen had started his journey before the date of the ordinances, his return to Pistoia was forbidden. No linen, woollen goods, or, not surprisingly, corpses, whatever their source, were to be imported into the town. Food markets were put under strict supervision. Attendance at funerals was to be limited to members of family and standards were laid down for the place and depth of burials. To avoid disturbing the sick and also, no doubt, so as not to undermine the morale of the healthy, there was to be no tolling of bells at funerals and no announcements by criers or trumpeters. The second set of ordinances, of 23 May, relaxed the ban on travel; no doubt because the plague had now taken so firm a grip that any such precautions would have been futile. Rules for the supervision of markets, however, were further tightened up. On 4 June changes were made to the rules for funerals. Sixteen men from each part of the town were to be selected as grave diggers and nobody else was to be allowed to do such work. Because of the shortage of wax, candles were no longer to be burned for the dead. Finally, on 13 June, the regulations governing the defence of the city were re-cast. So as to spare the cavalry, who were traditionally drawn from the richer section of society, ‘the fatigue of mind and body which had been proved to induce pestilence’, it was decreed that each cavalry man could provide a substitute to perform his duties.

This last proviso is of interest as being one of the very few instances of legislation or any other kind of official pronouncement which discriminated in favour of the rich and noble. Obviously the rich were better equipped than the poor to protect themselves against the plague but the temptation to Church and State to load the dice still further in their favour was generally resisted. Indeed, on the whole, civic authorities and national governments alike seem to have accepted their responsibilities towards the poorer sections of their populations and to have done their inadequate best to shield them from disaster.

A contrast to the responsible attitude of the Pistoians is to be found in the apparent apathy of the government of Orvieto. In her profound and brilliant study of Orvieto at the time of the Black Death,30 Dr Elizabeth Carpentier has analysed the impact of the disease and the reactions of its victims in terms which, mutatis mutandis, must be valid for every medium-sized town of Italy.

Orvieto in the mid-fourteenth century was a small but prosperous town of about 12,000 inhabitants. It had lost even more than its neighbours in the perpetual warfare between Guelph and Ghibelline and its rich vineyards and wheat fields had repeatedly been ravaged by marauding visitors or discontented citizens. The insecurity from which the whole region suffered had done serious harm to its role as a commercial centre and had reduced to almost nothing the profit which it gained from transit trade. The famine of 1346 and 1347 hit Orvieto badly though the hardships endured by its citizens were small compared with those in other, less well provided regions. By the autumn of 1347 the worst seemed to be over. There had been a good harvest and what promised to be a reasonably stable peace had been patched up. But the situation was still precarious and the powers of resistance of the average Orvietan had been gravely sapped.

Then, in the spring of 1348, came the Black Death. For months previously the members of the Council must have known that disaster was on the way but no official discussion took place and no preventive measures were adopted. When the Council met on 12 March 1348, the plague had reached Florence, some eighty miles away. But still the official silence was maintained. Perhaps the Councillors believed, not without reason, that it did not lie in their power to avert disaster and that, therefore, the less said the better. But there was also something of the spirit of the child who sees moving up on him the thundercloud that will ruin his play but says nothing in the hope that, if he pretends not to notice it, it will miraculously move away.

The Council, in fact, had good reason to think that there was little or nothing for them to do. Orvieto had one doctor and one surgeon paid by the city to tend the poor and teach students. There were seven private doctors listed as owning land and perhaps two or three more besides. This was not a bad tally for a town of medium size. But the hospitals were less impressive. Only one was reasonably well financed; the others had little space and less facilities. And the state of public hygiene was deplorable. Constantly reiterated laws against rearing pigs and goats in the street, tanning skins in mid-city and throwing refuse out of windows show that the Council was concerned about the situation but also that it was powerless to improve it. Dirt and malnutrition were the two great allies of the plague, in Orvieto as in so many other cities.

The Black Death was probably brought to Orvieto in the train of the Ambassador who arrived from Perugia towards the end of April 1348. It raged for four months at something near to full strength and reached its peak in July. It seems that the septicaemic form of the disease was common since there are many references to people dying within twenty-four hours of the first symptoms appearing. According to a contemporary chronicler more than five hundred victims died a day at the worst of the mortality and the final death roll included more than ninety per cent of the population. Both figures are unacceptably high; the first particularly so since even a week of such intensity would have eliminated more than a quarter of the total population. Dr Carpentier, working from admittedly scanty material, is inclined to put the mortality rate at about fifty per cent.

Compared with ninety per cent such a figure may seem tolerable, but it is still difficult to conceive the impact of a catastrophe which, within four or five months, removed every second person from a small and closely knit community. In every family of four in Orvieto, one of the parents and one of the children could statistically expect to die. The surprise is not that there was panic and despair but that the fabric of the city’s social life survived more or less unimpaired. Until the end of June the official records made no mention of the plague. Business as usual was the order of the day. Then the strain became too great. Of the Council of Seven elected at the end of June, two were dead by 23 July, three more by 7 August. Another member was ill by 10 August and, though he seems eventually to have recovered, a further death was recorded by 21 August. From the beginning of July all regular Council meetings were abandoned and there were blank pages in the city register. In mid-August Orvieto’s most important religious ceremony, the procession of the Assumption, was abandoned on orders of the authorities. Yet by the end of the month the Council was meeting regularly once more, the shops were open, three new public notaries and two new gate-keepers had been appointed, the many problems arising out of wills and intestacies were being sorted out. For the doctors, at least, there was a silver lining to the cloud. Before the Black Death the physician retained by the city, if he was lucky enough even to receive his salary, was paid £25 a year. After the plague Matteo fù Angelo was offered £200 a year and exemption from all the civic taxes.

Orvieto survived; to the outward eye at least substantially unscathed. Siena was left with a visible memento of the plague for posterity to wonder at. In 1347 work was in progress on what was to be the greatest church of Christendom. The transept of the Cathedral was built, the foundations of the choir and nave laid out. Then came the Black Death. The workmen perished, the money was diverted to other more urgent purposes. When the epidemic passed the shattered city could not find the funds or energy to complete the project. The truncated body of the Cathedral remained, was patched up and gradually became so much an accepted part of the landscape that today it is hard to believe it was ever intended to take a different form.

‘Father abandoned child’, wrote Agnolo di Tura31 of the plague at Siena, ‘wife, husband; one brother, another, for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and the sight. And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or for friendship…. And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with huge heaps of the dead…. And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise. And there were also many dead throughout the city who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies.’

According to Agnolo di Tura, if his somewhat convoluted calculations have been interpreted correctly, fifty thousand died within the city including thirty-six thousand old people. Many more fled to the country and, when the Black Death passed on, only ten thousand inhabitants remained. Since the total population of Siena could not, at the most, have exceeded fifty thousand in 1348 one finds, once again, a contemporary estimate which is not only improbable but actually impossible. But there is plenty of evidence that the city was unusually hard hit. The wool industry was closed down and the import of oil suspended. On 2 June, 1348, all civil courts were recessed by the City Council, not to reopen till three months later. In an emergency session of the Council, legalized gambling was prohibited ‘for ever’, the loss of revenue was considerable and, as it turned out, eternity was deemed to have run its course before the end of the year. The size of the City Council was reduced by a third and the obligatory quorum of members cut to a half. The church waxed fat from inheritances and gifts from frightened citizens; so much so that, in October, all annual appropriations to religious persons and institutions were suspended for two years.

Siena is an example of a city which, superficially, recovered quickly from the Black Death but, in reality, suffered economic and political dislocation so profound that things were never to be the same again. An intensive campaign to attract immigrants by tax concessions and other devices filled many of the gaps left by the plague. The exceptionally high death rate among clergy was to some extent overcome by throwing open to laymen posts usually reserved for monks or priests. Many estates, left without heirs, were taken over by the City Council. By 1353, a balanced budget had almost been achieved. What was left of the old oligarchy gained enormously through inheritances from their dead relations and the accumulation of power in fewer hands. It seemed that the statusquo ante had been restored, indeed that the old order was even more firmly established than before the plague.

But the gloss of normality was quickly cracked. The remnants of the oligarchy had not been the only group to profit financially from the epidemic. A class of new rich arose and wished to play the part in the city’s government to which they felt the length of their purse entitled them. But their pretensions met with a chilly response. No concessions were made to meet them and harsh sumptuary laws were passed to curb the ambitions of those who affected the trappings of higher station than their birth and education justified. Meanwhile the poor, among whom the disease had raged the worst, often found that they had lost even the little which they had once possessed. The gap which divided them from their luckier neighbours grew ever wider.

By the time of the Black Death the Government of Nine had ruled Siena without serious challenge for some seventy years. A few years later it seemed successfully to have weathered the storm and to have launched Siena on another era of stable prosperity. Yet in 1354 it fell. It can be argued that this was not a direct consequence of the plague but, equally, it is certain that the Black Death, in Dr Bowsky’s phrase, ‘was instrumental in creating demographic, social and economic conditions that greatly increased opposition to the ruling oligarchy’.32 Without some such prior conditioning it is hard to see how the necessary force and will to overthrow the oligarchy could have sprung into life. It is not desirable, at this point in the narrative, to give much attention to the long term effects of the Black Death on the society which it had devastated. But it is important to bear in mind the lesson of Siena: that a patient has not necessarily recovered because his more obvious wounds are healed.


By the winter of 1348, about a year after its first appearance in Sicily, the Black Death in Italy was past the worst. There were to be minor outbreaks in the next year or two and it was to be much longer before the man in the street felt himself entirely safe; he barely did so, in fact, before the next epidemic was upon him in the early 1360s. But the period of acute crisis was over. Pope Clement VI threatened to revive the danger when he yielded to pressure from many countries and proclaimed 1350 a Holy Year. The first Jubilee had been held in 1300 and it had not been intended to hold another until a century later but, in the circumstances, the Pope agreed to advance the date and to grant special indulgences to all who made the journey to Rome. To fill the roads of Europe with wandering pilgrims and concentrate them in the heart of one of the areas worst struck by plague could well have been the surest means of renewing the full force of the epidemic. Matteo Villani, one of the sounder of the chroniclers when it came to statistics, wrote that around Easter, though the pilgrims were too numerous to count, there must have been more than a million visitors to Rome.33 The figure must be by far too large but the influx of pilgrims from all over Europe was certainly immense.

St Bridget of Sweden was among the visitors, arriving early in 1349 when the Black Death was still a lively menace. She had clear views about the proper method of tackling the epidemic: ‘abolish earthly vanity in the shape of extravagant clothes, give free alms to the needy and order all parish priests to celebrate Mass once a month in honour of the Holy Trinity.’34 These rather humdrum measures do not appear greatly to have impressed the Romans but she still scored a considerable personal success. One male Orsini, it is recorded, had caught the plague and was despaired of by the doctors. ‘If only the Lady Bridget were here!’ sighed his mother. ‘Her touch would cure my son.’ At that moment in walked the saint. She prayed by the invalid’s bedside, laid her hand on his forehead and left him, a few hours later, fully restored to health.

St Bridget’s attentions were not much needed. In spite of the Pope’s ill-judged decision, Holy Year brought little in the way of fresh outbreaks. But the damage was already bad enough. Italy had been depopulated. But when one tries to describe this dramatic concept in slightly more mathematical terms, the difficulties begin. On the basis of our present knowledge it is quite impossible to put forward even the most approximate figure and state with authority that such a proportion of Italy’s peoples must have died. Even in England, with its wealth of ecclesiastical and civil records and its army of diligent scholars, only a more-or-less informed guess is feasible. A fortiori in Italy, where many regions have been the subject of little or no research if indeed the materials for such research exists, an overall estimate has little value. Sometimes it is possible to fix a movement of population over a longer period. It is, for instance, reasonably well established that the population around Pistoia in 1404 was only some 30 per cent of what it had been in 1244.35 But the data does not exist which would enable one to pinpoint the proportion of this decline to be attributed to the year 1348.

But the fact that any estimate for the whole of Italy must be highly speculative does not preclude a guess. Doren, in his Economic History,36 has estimated that between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of town dwellers died and that, in the countryside, the proportion must have been much lower. Figures like these cover a multitude of qualifications. In Tuscany, for example, where the plague was exceptionally severe, more peasants died than in certain cities which escaped lightly, such as Milan or Parma. For some areas, where no statistics whatsoever can be garnered, the only remedy is to apply the proportion established for roughly similar parts of the country and hope for the best. A shot in the dark, or at least the twilight, however tentative, is still better than nothing. If one assumes that a third or slightly more of Italy’s total population perished, it is unlikely that one would be very badly wrong and certain that nobody could prove one so.


1 Michael of Piazza (Platiensis), Bibliotheca scriptorum qui res in Sicilia gestas retulere, Vol. 1, p.562.

2 ‘La Peste Noire’, Revue de Paris, March 1950, p.108.

3 André Siegfried, Itinéraires des contagions: épidémies et idéologies, Paris, 1960, p.114.

4 Coulton, Black Death, op. cit., p.9.

5 Monumenta Pisana, Muratori 15, (1729 edition), p.1021.

6 Sismondi, Histoire des Républiques Italiennes du Moyen Age, Paris, 1826, Vol. VI, p.11 et seq.

7 Storie Pistoresi, Muratori. 11, V, p.224.

8 Carpentier, Une Ville devant la Peste, op. cit., pp.79–81.

9 Sismondi, op. cit., p. 13.

10 Giovanni Villani, Cronica, Florence, 1845, Book 12, p.92.

11 Cambridge Mediaeval History, Vol. VII, pp.49–77.

12 Epistolaé Familiares, lib. VIII, pp.290–303.

13 Defoe’s account of the Plague of London is an obvious rival but, since he was only seven years old in 1665, the term ‘eye-witness’ is perhaps loosely employed. The translation is that of J.M. Rigg in the Everyman edition (London, 1930).

14 e.g. Cronica Fiorentina, Muratori, 30, 1, p.231.

15 Giovanni Villani, Cronica, op. cit., Book II, p. 122.

16 E. Fiumi, ‘La demografia fiorentina nelle pagine di Giovanni Villani’, Archivio Storico Italiano, 1950, Vol. I, p.80.

17 E. Fiumi, La popolazionevolterrano sangimignanese, p.280.

18 W. M. Bowsky, ‘The Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government and Society’, Speculum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 1964, p.18. Carpentier, op. cit., p.135.

19 Black Death, p.28.

20 Nohl, op. cit., pp.6 and 26.

21 Chronicon Estense, Muratori, 15, III, p.162.

22 Cronica Gestorum ac factorum memorabilium civitatis Bononie, Muratori 28, II, p.43.

23 e.g. A Doren, Storia Economica dell’ Italia nel Medio Evo, Padua, 1937, P.579.

24 Chronicon Estense, op. cit., p.162.

25 Lorenzo de Monaci, Chronicon de rebus Venetorum, Brunetti, ‘Venezia durante la peste’, Ateneo Veneto, 32, 1909.

26 d’Irsay, ‘Defence Reactions During the Black Death’, Annals of Medical History, IX, 1927, p.171.

27 d’Irsay, op. cit., p.174.

28 Hecker, op. cit., pp.58–9.

29 Alberto Chiappelli, ‘Gli ordinamenti sanitari del Comune de Pistoia contra la peste de 1348, Arch. stor. ital., Ser. IV, vol. XX. pp.3–24.
Anna Campbell, The Black Death and Men of Learning, p.115.

30 Une Ville devant la Peste. Orvieto et la Peste Noire de 1348.

31 Cronica Senese di Agnolo di Tura del Grosso, Muratori, 15, VI, P.555.

32 W. Bowsky, Speculum, Vol. XXXIX, op. cit., p.34.

33 Matteo Villani, Cronica, Florence, 1846, Book 1, pp.67–8.

34 S. M. Gromberger, ‘St Bridget of Sweden’, American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XLII, 1917, p.97.

35 D. Herlihy, ‘Population, Plague and Social Change in Rural Pistoia’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1965, p.225.

36 A. Doren, op. cit., p.579.

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