PLAGUE READINGS from P. M. Rogers, Aspects of Western Civilization, Prentice Hall, 2000, pp. 353-365.

Throughout, consider the impact of the Black Death on individuals and on society:

How do people respond to the plague?

How do they understand the "cause" of plague?

Do they address the cause? (how?)

How does the plague affect the structures and institutions of society?


Jean de Venette was a Carmelite friar in Paris. He came from peasant stock, yet became a master of theology at the University of Paris. His chronicle of the period is highly respected by historians and provides much valuable information on the political and religious life of the fourteenth century. His account of the Black Death reflects an intimate understanding of its devastation.

In 1348 C.E., the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war. For in addition to the famine which I described in the beginning and to the wars which I described in the course of this narrative, pestilence and its attendant tribulations appeared again in various parts of the world. In the month of August,1348, after Vespers when the sun was beginning to set, a big and very bright star appeared above Paris, toward the west. It did not seem, as stars usually do, to be very high above our hemisphere but rather very near. As the sun set and night came on, this star did not seem to me or to many other friars who were watching it to move from one place. At length, when night had come, this big star, to the amazement of all of us who were watching, broke into many different rays and, as it shed these rays over Paris toward the east, totally disappeared and was completely annihilated. Whether it was a comet or not, whether it was composed of airy exhalations and was finally resolved into vapor, I leave to the decision of astronomers. It is, however, possible that it was a presage of the amazing pestilence to come, which, in fact, followed very shortly in Paris and throughout France and elsewhere, as I shall tell. All this year and the next, the mortality of men and women, of the young even more than of the old, in Paris and in the kingdom of France, and also, it is said, in other parts of the world, was so great that it was almost impossible to bury the dead. People lay ill little more than two or three days and died suddenly .... He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave. Swellings appeared suddenly in the armpit or in the groin-in many cases both-and they were infallible signs of death. This sickness or pestilence was called an epidemic by the doctors. Nothing like the great numbers who died in the years 1348 and 1349 had been heard of or seen or read of in times past. This plague and disease came from . . . association and contagion, for if a well man visited the sick he only rarely evaded the risk of death. Wherefore in many towns timid priests withdrew, leaving the exercise of their ministry to such of the religious as were more daring. In many places not two out of twenty remained alive. So high was the mortality at the Hotel-Dieu in Paris that for a long time, more than five hundred dead were carried daily with great devotion in carts to the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris for burial. A very great number of the saintly sisters of the Hotel-Dieu who, not fearing to die, nursed the sick in all sweetness and humility, rest in peace with Christ, as we may piously believe.

This plague, it is said, began among the unbelievers, came to Italy, and then crossing the Alps reached Avignon, where it attacked several cardinals and took from them their whole household. Then it spread, unforeseen, to France, through Gascony and Spain, little by little, from town to town, from village to village, from house to house, and finally from person to person. It even crossed over to Germany, though it was not so bad there as with us. During the epidemic, God of His accustomed goodness deigned to grant this grace, that however suddenly men died, almost all awaited death joyfully. Nor was there anyone who died without confessing his sins and receiving the holy viaticum. To the even greater benefit of the dying, Pope Clement VI through their confessors mercifully gave and granted absolution from penalty to the dying in many cities and fortified towns. Men died the more willingly for this and left many inheritances and temporal goods to churches and monastic orders, for in many cases they had seen their close heirs and children die before them.

Some said that this pestilence was caused by infection of the air and waters, since there was at this time no famine nor lack of food supplies, but on the contrary great abundance. As a result of this theory of infected water and air as the source of the plague, the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. The unshaken . . . constancy of the men and their wives was remarkable. For mothers hurled their children first into the fire that they might not be baptized and then leaped in after them to burn with their husbands and children. It is said that many bad Christians were found who in a like manner put poison into wells. But in truth, such poisonings, granted that they actually were perpetrated, could not have caused so great a plague nor have infected so many people. There were other causes; for example, the will of God and the corrupt humors and evil inherent in air and earth. Perhaps the poisonings, if they actually took place in some localities, re-enforced these causes. The plague lasted in France for the greater part of the years 1348 and 1349 and then ceased. Many country villages and many houses in good towns remained empty and deserted. Many houses, including some splendid dwellings, very soon fell into ruins. Even in Paris several houses were thus ruined, though fewer here than elsewhere.

After the cessation of the epidemic, pestilence, or plague, the men and women who survived married each other. There was no sterility among the men, but on the contrary fertility beyond the ordinary. Pregnant women were seen on every side. Many twins were born and even three children at once. But the most surprising fact is that children born after the plague, when they became of an age for teeth, had only twenty or twenty-two teeth, though before that time men commonly had thirty-two in their upper and lower jaws together. What this diminution in the number of teeth signified I wonder greatly, unless it be a new era resulting from the destruction of one human generation by the plague and its replacement by another. But woe is me! The world was not changed for the better but for the worse by this renewal of population. For men were more avaricious and grasping than before, even though they had far greater possessions. They were more covetous and disturbed each other more frequently with suits, brawls, disputes, and pleas. Nor by the mortality resulting from this terrible plague inflicted by God was peace between kings and lords established. On the contrary, the enemies of the king of France and of the Church were stronger and wickeder than before and stirred up wars on sea and on land. Greater evils than before [spread] everywhere in the world. And this fact was very remarkable. Although there was an abundance of all goods, yet everything was twice as dear, whether it were utensils, [food], or merchandise, hired helpers or peasants and serfs, except for some hereditary domains which remained abundantly stocked with everything. Charity began to cool, and iniquity with ignorance and sin to abound, for few could be found in the good towns and castles who knew how or were willing to instruct children in the rudiments of grammar.

"The Plague in France" is from Richard A. Newhall, ed., Jean Birdsall, trans., The Chronicle of Jean de Venette (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), pp. 48-51.

The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle AGNOLO DI TURA

Agnolo di Tura del Grasso produced a chronicle of events from 1300 to 1351 that that was solidly based on observation and the consultation of public records. His personal contact with the plague makes his account particularly interesting.

The mortality began in Siena in May (1348). It was a cruel and horrible thing; and I do not know where to begin to tell of the cruelty and the pitiless ways. It seemed to almost everyone that one became stupefied by seeing the pain. And it is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful thing. Indeed one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. And the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits and in their groins, and fall over dead while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. Nor did the death bell sound. And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered over with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug.

And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world. And no medicine or any other defense availed. And the lords selected three citizens who received a thousand gold florins from the commune of Siena that they were to spend on the poor sick and to bury the poor dead. And it was all so horrible that I, the writer, cannot think of it and so will not continue. This situation continued until September, and it would take too long to write of it. And it is found that at this time there died in Siena 36,000 persons twenty years of age or less, and the aged and other people (died), to a total of 52,000 in all in Siena. And in the suburbs of Siena 28,000 persons died; so that in all it is found that in the city and suburbs of Siena 80,000 persons died. Thus at this time Siena and its suburbs had more than 30,000 men, and there remained in Siena (alone) less than 10,000 men. And those that survived were like persons distraught and almost without feeling. And many walls and other things were abandoned, and all the mines of silver and gold and copper that existed in Sienese territory were abandoned as is seen; for in the countryside . . . many more people died, many lands and villages were abandoned, and no one remained there. I will not write of the cruelty that there was in the countryside, of the wolves and wild beasts that ate the poorly buried corpses, and of other cruelties that would be too painful to those who read of them ....

The city of Siena seemed almost uninhabited for almost no one was found in the city. And then, when the pestilence abated, all who survived gave 'themselves over to pleasures: monks, priests, nuns, and lay men and women all enjoyed themselves, and none worried about spending and gambling. And everyone thought himself rich because he had escaped and regained the world, and no one knew how to allow himself to do nothing ....

At this time in Siena the great and noble project of enlarging the cathedral of Siena that had been begun a few years earlier was abandoned ....

After the pestilence the Sienese appointed two judges and three nonSienese notaries whose task it was to handle the wills that had been made at that time. And so they searched them out and found them ....

1349. After the great pestilence of the past year each person lived according to his own caprice, and everyone tended to seek pleasure in eating and drinking, hunting, catching birds and gaming. And all money had fallen into the hands of nouveaux riches.

"The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle" is from Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, Cronica Maggiore, in The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? by William M. Bowsky, pp.13-14. Copyright 1971 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

"A Most Terrible Plague" GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO

Giovanni Boccaccio is best known as a humanist of the Italian Renaissance. The following excerpt is from his most famous work, The Decameron. Written during the plague years between 1348 and 1353, it is a collection of stories told intimately between friends while they passed the time away from Florence in the solitude and safety of the country. It begins with a detailed description of the pestilence. Over two-thirds of the population of Florence died of the plague.

In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place, and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, in spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health; and notwithstanding manifold supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise, it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the armpits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous-both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the power of drugs was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague, was that, by being communicated from the sick to the healthy, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched ....

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end; which was, to avoid the sick, and every thing that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some holding it best to live temperately, and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties, and shut themselves up from the rest of the world; eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music, and such other entertainments as they might have within doors; never listening to anything from without, to make them uneasy. Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would balk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners, and therefore common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected. And such, at that time, was the public distress, that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers, to put them in force, being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased. A third sort of people chose a method between these two: not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with [fragrances and nose-coverings], for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself, and partly from the fermenting of the medicines within them. Others with less humanity, but . . . with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it: persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations, and effects, and fled into the country; as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city ....

I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other; for their terror was such, that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employer died; and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives ....

It fared no better with the adjacent country, for . . . you might see the poor distressed labourers, with their families, without either the aid of physicians, or help of servants, languishing on the highways, in the fields, and in their own houses, and dying rather like cattle than human, creatures. The consequence was that, growing dissolute in their manners like the citizens, and careless of everything, as supposing every day to be their last, their thoughts were not so much employed how to improve, as how to use their substance for their present support.

What can I say more, if I return to the city, unless that such was the cruelty of Heaven, and perhaps of men, that between March and July following, according to authentic reckonings, upwards of a hundred thousand souls perished in the city only; whereas, before that calamity, it was not supposed to have contained so many inhabitants. What magnificent dwellings, what noble palaces were then depopulated to the last inhabitant! What families became extinct! What riches and vast possessions were left, and no known heir to inherit them! What numbers of both sexes, in the prime and vigour of youth . . . breakfasted in the morning with their living friends, and supped at night with their departed friends in the other world!

"A Most Terrible Plague'" is from Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, in Stories of Boccaccio, trans. John Payne (London: Bibliophilist Library, 1903), pp. 1-6.

Effects of the Plague

Human populations are resilient enough to recover from an isolated epidemic, but pandemic plague gave impetus to the great permanent changes in the Late Middle Ages.

Historians can document some of the changes explicitly; other changes were more ephemeral and are subject to varying opinion. The depopulation of the cities, where the plague hit hardest, caused a crisis in trade and economic exchange. Production of goods was often curtailed with the death of skilled artisans, and those who replaced them offered work of inferior quality. The medieval church grew wealthier from the accumulation of property of those who willed it as a last token of faith before they died. But the church also had difficulty explaining the pestilence and was hard-pressed to defend against the argument that God was taking vengeance for the sins of humanity. The papacy itself was battered by criticism and charges of corruption that were proved daily during its residence in Avignon from 1303 to 1377. What the church gained in wealth, it lost in prestige. The plague also affected the political relationship between church and state that had been under dispute since the eleventh century. The question of whether the secular or spiritual realm had greater authority on earth had already been answered by the mid fourteenth century, since popes no longer challenged the military might of kings. But this status was confirmed by the results of the Black Death. The traditional containers of monarchical power were the nobility and the clergy. Both groups depended on the strength that numbers and unity gave them in their struggles with the king. The plague reduced their numbers, thus allowing kings to secure their realms more easily.

Perhaps the greatest changes, however, were in the fabric of society. On a personal level, the plague destroyed patterns of life that contributed to social stability. Familial ties were shattered as people refused to care for their relatives out of fear of contracting the disease themselves. Whole families were destroyed; we can truly speak of "lost generations. " Survivors were often left in psychological and moral crisis.

The clergy struggled to maintain its authority and credibility during the plague. In the following selections, note the desperation the clergy felt in not being able to handle the crisis.

The Situation in Rochester (1349) DENE OF ROCHESTER

In this pestilence scarce one-third of the population remained alive. Then, also, there was so great scarcity and rarity of priests that parish churches remained altogether unserved, and beneficed parsons had turned aside from the care of their benefices for fear of death, not knowing where they might dwell .... Many chaplains and hired parish priests would not serve without excessive pay. The Bishop of Rochester (by a mandate of June 27, 1349, to the Archdeacon of Rochester), commanded these to serve at the same salaries, under pain of suspension and interdict. Moreover, many beneficed clergy, seeing that the number of their parishioners had been so diminished by the plague that they could not live upon such oblations as were left, deserted their benefices.

The Fate of Dutiful Friars (1361) FRIAR MICHAEL OF PIAZZA

So did the plague increase at Messina [Sicily] that many sought to confess their sins to the priests and make their last testament, and the priests and judges and notaries refused to go to their houses; and if any of them did enter the sick men's houses for testamentary or other business, sudden death came unavoidably upon them. But the friars, who were willing (Franciscans and Dominicans and of other Orders) to enter the houses of the sick, and who confessed them of their sins, and who gave them penance according to the will [of God to satisfy] divine justice, were so infected with this deadly plague that scarce any of them remained in their cells. What shall I say more? The corpses lay abandoned in their own houses; no priest or son or father or kinsman dared to enter, but they gave rich fees to hirelings to bear the corpses to burial .... .

Matteo Villani was the brother of Giovanni Villani, the first great chronicler of Florence. Giovanni had described the beginnings of the plague before he himself died of it. Matteo continued his brother's work and devoted two chapters to the effects of the plague. He himself succumbed to the disease in 1363. The confused reactions to the plague were often either to lead a very temperate life in hopes that God would approve and lift his ban against humanity or conversely to enjoy life to the utmost before Death knocked on the door. Villani describes the scene in Florence.

"God's Hand Was Unstrung" MATTEO VILLANI

Those few discreet folk who remained alive expected many things, all of which, by reasons of the corruption of sin, failed among mankind, whose minds followed marvellously in the contrary direction. They believed that those whom God's grace had saved from death, having beheld the destruction of their neighbors, and having heard the same tidings from all the nations of the world, would become better-conditioned, humble, virtuous, and Catholic; that they would guard themselves from iniquity and sins, and would be full of love and charity one towards another. But no sooner had the plague ceased than we saw the contrary; for, since men were few, and since, by hereditary succession, they abounded in earthly goods, they forgot the past as though it had never been, and gave themselves up to a more shameful and disordered life than they had led before. For, mouldering in ease, they dissolutely abandoned themselves to the sin of gluttony, with feasts and taverns and delight of delicate foods; and again to games of hazard and to unbridled lechery, inventing strange and unaccustomed fashions and indecent manners in their garments, and changing all their household stuff into new forms. And the common folk, both men and women, by reason of the abundance and superfluity that they found, would no longer labour at their accustomed trades, but demanded the dearest and most delicate foods for their sustenance; and they married at their will, while children and common women clad themselves in all the fair and costly garments of the ladies dead by that horrible death. Thus, almost the whole city, without any restraint whatsoever, rushed into disorderliness of life; and in other cities or provinces of the world things were the same or worse. Therefore, according to such tidings as we could hear, there was no part of the world wherein men restrained themselves to live in temperance, when once they had escaped from the fury of the Lord; for now they thought that. God's hand was unstrung .... Again, men dreamed of wealth and abundance in garments and in all other things . . . beyond meat and drink; yet, in fact, things turned out widely different; for most [luxury] commodities were more costly, by twice or more, than before the plague. And the price of labour, and the work of all trades and crafts, rose in disorderly fashion beyond the double. Lawsuits and disputes and quarrels and riots arose everywhere among citizens in every land, by reason of legacies and successions; the law-courts of our own city of Florence were long filled with such [cases], to our great expense and unwanted discomfort. Wars and . . . scandals arose throughout the world, contrary to men's expectation.

"The Situation in Rochester", "The Fate of Dutiful Friars", and "'God's Hand Was Unstrung'" from G. G. Coulton, The Black Death (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929).