The Black Death

The Florentine Chronicle was written in the late 1370’s by Marchione di Coppo Stefani. It is an account of The Black Death that struck the inhabitants of Florence in 1348. Stefani goes into great detail about the severity of the symptoms of the plague and describes it as a pestilence within the district. Confusion and fear were widespread as there was no knowledge of how the disease spread and no known cure. There were no doctors to attend the sick as they had been infected themselves, no one was safe.

It is noted that all living things, regardless of status, were infected from farmyard animals to holy men of the church. Stefani tells us that the people of the town fled in fear to escape the disease, which only resulted in it being spread to other areas of the country so causing an epidemic. So many died within Florentine that they had to resort to burying them in mass graves, the description given is ‘they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese on a lasagna…’ and more likely than not with no holy words to lay them to rest.

Stefani remarks that in September when the disease began to abate people who had fled and survived began to return to Florence and suddenly found themselves recipients of inherited houses and possessions. He states that he found this ‘unseemly’ and accused the newly attired inhabitants of being ostentatious; he is intimating that they are opportunists rather than genuine inheritors.

Stefani himself was only 12 when the plague reached Florence. The Chronicle was written over thirty years later. From the clues given in the piece it can be stated that he was from the aristocracy and not a lowly servant or worker. He was educated and well-read, the fact that he could have written such a piece confirms this. This can be substantiated further by the references to servants and rich houses, probably of those he or his family knew. Stefani survived the plague and being so young this was more than likely due to him being sheltered, removed from the threat by his family. It can be assumed that none of his family actually died from the plague as they have no mention, so their escape from Florence could have been early on in the outbreak.

This calls into question whether most of his account is actually hearsay, stories that he has gleaned, or overheard, after the event. It is hard to believe that an educated aristocratic twelve year old boy would be allowed to wander aimlessly around a plague stricken town and even if this were the case the chances of him not acquiring the disease while doing so would be slim.

This being said Stefani’s account is corroborated by other documentation, also considered to be primary sources. Agnolo di Tura from Siena wrote a short piece around the time of the actual plague describing the exact same symptoms. When it struck the inhabitants of his town, Siena, he states he had to bury five of his own children. He is describing the same virulent disease that had no care of status or wealth and describes how they had to resort to the use of mass graves to bury the dead.

Boccacio: The Decameron, written at the time of the plague, describes the social response to epidemics, how fear drives people to abandon their homes and loved ones. It corroborates the symptoms and virulence of the disease and describes how there were so many bodies that mass burial was the only option. Physicians had no power over the disease and no cure could be found. Simple things were thought to avert the disease like holding one’s nose so as not to inhale the stench, this was thought to carry the disease, or carrying a posy of flowers, again to avert the smell. The children’s nursery rhyme Ring ‘o’ Roses is based on the plague and the attempts to avert it.

Evidence collated by modern day historians, like Sir Arthur Bryant, corroborate the details of The Black Death. They are able to expand on the Europe-wide history of the disease and how it spread throughout the continent. It is now known that this initial outbreak killed approximately two thirds of the population. Within Florence the disease ended in September 1348 but as it had spread so far it did not abate within Europe until winter 1349.

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