Plague. The silent killer of the Middle Ages terrified people and rightly so. Medicine was rudimentary and in the face of a viral assassin like the Bubonic Plague – largely useless. Prayer was a common recourse but if you were wealthy, another avenue was presented by simply running away.
This is what the heroes of The Decameron – a fourteenth century book – do. Seven women and three men flee to a villa outside plague-ridden Florence and tell ten stories each – 100 stories in total – as they wait for the plague to abate.
The Decameron was written by an Italian writer called Boccaccio who saw the Black Death with his own eyes – and like many of his class and standing, the pestilence made him question the authority of the church and Rome. There is a very disrespectful and sarcastic attitude towards priests and friars that might surprise a modern reader.
Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies“. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.
Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”. Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”
It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.
“The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.”
Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.
The movie ‘Black Death‘ came and went faster than the plague itself and some critics thought it stank just as bad. However, I haven’t seen it and I’ll confess to being curious. Here is the trailer.
- The Return of Bubonic Plague in the United States (theintelhub.com)