Whenever we think of the most devastating pandemics in history, it’s impossible not to think first of the Black Death that took the lives of more than a third of the European population during the 14th century.
Whenever we think of the most devastating pandemics in history it’s impossible not to think first of on the Black Death (or Pestilence as it was known at the time) that took the lives of more than one-third of the European population during the fourteenth century. We’ve seen it in movies, books, TV, and paintings, and the desolation that's portrayed is unimaginable. The death toll in basically every single corner of the European continent was alarming. Recounts of the time narrate how they had to dig extremely deep pits; every day dozens of bodies were deposited and covered with soil just so that they could bury more bodies the next day.
Why this pandemic reached such numbers was really a mystery up until very recently. It was during the sixties when DNA studies made on corpses revealed that what caused this deathly plague was a bacteria known as Yersinia pestis. This particular type of bacteria is found mainly in wild rodents that live in big and dense groups. Now, normally the bacteria would infect the rats with a bite and, in about fourteen days, these would die with the bacteria. However, at the time rats and humans basically cohabited the same spaces, creating a plague focus and making the contagion quite easy. Around twenty-three days passed between the first human infection and the first death, so you can imagine how many got infected in that long lapse of time.
Just imagine at the time seeing how all of a sudden a person you know starts presenting strange symptoms, how they start developing huge lumps (known as buboes, thus the name of "bubonic plague"), and finally after just some days of terrible agony, they die. Now imagine this happening to a considerable number of people who, without any warning, start falling dead like flies. We can read about it, and even see it in documentaries, but imagine the terror, the paranoia, and the anxiety of witnessing it. I guess there aren’t really words to convey all the confusion and strength to deal with something like that. Not even the greatest poets and writers of the time, in my opinion, could represent with words what they were facing.
The Decameron, written by one of the main representatives of Italian literature, Giovanni Bocaccio, tells the journey of a group of ten people that flee from the Black Death that desolated Florence. He starts the text by explaining how in the spring of 1348 the plague arrived in Florence, described by him as “the finest city of all Italy”: “[...] 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.” He goes on explaining the symptoms and how people just died three days after presenting the first buboes, some purple spots in the groins, armpits, and necks. Moreover, he is surprised by the fact that nothing is capable of defeating the plague. Even when the city was sanitized and the remains were burnt, people would still die within a matter of days.
As it can be seen from Boccaccio’s quote, not being able to explain the real causes of what was killing them, superstition at least gave them the answers they needed. Many thought it was God's wrath punishing them for their sins, and many started engaging in extremely radical religious practices like self-chastising. Others immediately confessed all their sins, even those they thought to be minor, while several decided to seclude themselves inside churches. At least this was the most harmless way to deal with that, because soon the theory that it wasn't actually God's anger but a sly scheme of the Jews to take over the territory began to spread as fast and as lethally as the plague itself. Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of water in every single city throughout Europe and, as you can imagine, a bloodthirsty persecution began. Women were also blamed for the plague based on the fact that the majority of dead people were men, so they assumed there was either some sort of witchcraft behind it or that God was punishing them for giving in to their lustful drives.
It was a medical fact at the time that the human body responded to four humors (blood, mucus, yellow, and black gall) and some physicians believed that this plague affected the four of them, thus the high death rates. However, there were many other theories. Since animals that got in touch with infected human beings died in a matter of hours, the slaughtering of animals became a common practice you could witness on the streets. Anything that could be at least suspiciously related to the plague was eliminated completely.
However, most likely the plague began in the arid lands of Asia, and due to the international commerce routes, it was quickly spread to Europe via Crimea. When the plague reached that territory, it was as troubling and confusing. But before that, there are stories of the plague being used as a chemical weapon. Okay, not as you may think. For example, when the Genoese colony was under siege, the army blocking the entrances to the colony started presenting the disease, so the khan (some sort of sultan) decided to use it to finally conquer Genoese. They starting catapulting the bodies of those who had died, so that they would all suffer the same consequences. Following their instincts, the people from the colony started throwing the bodies into the sea, but it wasn’t fast enough, because the plague spread anyway. Still, the conquering army had also the bacteria among their men, and throughout their voyages, they continued spreading it.
The reactions to the pandemic were wide and diverse. We’ve talked about the religious insight, the vengeful attitudes, and how it was used as a deadly weapon to defeat an army’s enemies. However, others took it with a more free and serene philosophy. There are many recounts, including that of Boccaccio, of how people, thinking that it was some sort of apocalypse and that they were going to die no matter how pious they were, just decided to experience life at its most. You could see drunk people on the streets happily dancing and joking, leaving all worries behind. No matter how much they were told about how these actions would guarantee a safe passage to hell, they decided they wanted to spend their last days happy and enjoying earthly pleasures.
The different attitudes towards the Black Death tell us the magnitude of the pandemic. Yes, we can talk about numbers, how 60% of the European population died, and how many cities suffered the consequences (not only in terms of lives) of this catastrophe. But at the end of the day, the everyday stories really show us the reach of the disease and how the plague made no distinction. No matter your social status or religion, if you were infected, that was it. There are still many things that are unknown to science about how this particular bacteria behaves and why it got so easily spread through a huge territory, but then again, all these stories have taught us more about our humanity than any hard fact.
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