Europe on the Brink of the Black Death: The Plague Begins

From a lecture series by Professor Dorsey Armstrong. Ph.D.

The plague that raged through Europe in the 14th century changed just about every single thing about medieval society, and indeed, in large measure, the Black Death produced the modern world we live in today.

Image of Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death) illustration for The Black Death series of posts

The Plague Comes to Florence, Italy

In order to convey the impact of the plague on the medieval world, I want to zoom in as it were to one particular moment in time, and one particular place—Florence, Italy, in late January 1348. If you’re a Florentine in the mid-14th century, things are pretty good. Your society is stable and economically sound. There is complex social and political infrastructure. The city is wealthy because of its extensive trade networks. It’s governed by a more or less representative body of leaders who take it seriously to regulate the safety and well-being of its citizens.

Read More: The Black Death—Symptoms and Diagnosis of The Plague

The city itself is a leading patron of the arts, with some of the greatest artistic minds the world has ever known commissioned by city fathers to beautify public spaces and buildings like the guildhall. The news in Florence in late January 1348 would have been preoccupied with some horrific stories coming out of Sicily—some mystery illness was apparently wreaking havoc there, but that was far away from daily life in happy, prosperous Florence.

…unlike other illnesses that this city had experienced over the centuries of its history, this outbreak didn’t burn itself out or slow down—it got worse

And then—a few people got sick. No real cause for alarm. But by mid-February, more and more people were getting very sick and dying. But unlike other illnesses that this city had experienced over the centuries of its history, this outbreak didn’t burn itself out or slow down—it got worse. People dropped dead in the streets, or died in their houses, and no one knew they had died because there was no one left alive to notice. Beautiful public spaces that in mid-January had been places to meet friends and have a conversation had become open, stinking mass graves by March. Practically overnight, Florence had gone from being a jewel of a city to a charnel house. And the experience of Florence was going to be far from unique during the years the Black Death swept through the medieval world.

It’s a common misconception that it’s called the Black Death because parts of the bodies of people who were infected turned black. Most people who have a passing knowledge on the subject know that the plague was often called the bubonic plague because in one form it produced large lumps—or buboes—around the lymph nodes (the groin or armpit). And people seem to have assumed that the term Black Death refers to the color of those buboes. Nope—the term Black Death is used to suggest the horror of the epidemic, not the color of its symptoms. It was a dark, black, terrifying time.

The Black Death In Context

One thing about studying the Middle Ages is that at once, it feels utterly foreign and alien. And then, in the next moment, a character in a medieval story or the writer of a chronicle of the Middle Ages says or does something that is completely recognizable and familiar. It reminds us that people then and now are more alike than not, even if our settings and contexts are radically different.

But when it comes to the Black Death, it often becomes difficult to see those connections and similarities, because the horror of that experience was unlike anything that had ever occurred in living memory. People’s reactions were understandably coming from a place of sheer terror and despair.

Learn more: The Black Death’s Ports of Entry

Engraved portrait of the poet Giovanni Boccaccio by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, 1822
Engraved portrait of the poet Giovanni Boccaccio by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, 1822

Consider this eyewitness account of Giovanni Boccaccio, writer of the Decameron, who described how every morning in the towns and cities of Italy, the corpses of those who had died in the night would be placed out into the street, and eventually funeral biers—sometimes nothing more than a rough board—would go through the town to collect them:

It was by no means rare for more than one of these biers to be seen with two or three bodies upon it at a time. Many were seen to contain a husband and wife, two or three brothers and sisters, a father and son, and times without number it happened that two priests would be on their way to bury someone, only to find bearers carrying three or four additional biers would fall in behind them.

Such was the multitude of corpses that there was not sufficient consecrated ground for them to be buried in, so when all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships’ cargo, each layer of corpses being covered over with a thin layer of soil till the trench was filled to the top.

Read More: The Black Death: Is The Plague Still A Threat?

The End of History, The End of The World

To many it seemed as if the end of the world was surely at hand; indeed, one chronicler, leaving a blank space at the end of his history, noted that he did so in case anyone should be left alive who might wish to make a record of events that had transpired. It’s clear that leaving this space was a desperate, defiant action of optimism, because it didn’t seem likely that anyone would survive.

For about a decade in the middle of the 14th century in Europe, it seemed like the world was coming to an end. A horrible plague made its way westward, killing a third to a half of the population of the medieval world. Eyewitness accounts describe bodies lying in the streets and mass graves in churchyards, so full and so foul that people who needed to walk past them held cloths dipped in something strong smelling—like a concoction of herbs or sweet-smelling flowers—in front of their noses.

Spread of the Black Death in Europe (1346–1353)
Spread of the Black Death in Europe (1346–1353)

The disease was a mystery, seeming to exist in a confusing variety of permutations. Some people developed excruciatingly painful swollen lymph nodes—buboes—at the groin and armpits. Most of these people died, but some, about 15 percent–18 percent, recovered. Others developed fevers, rashes, and blisters, and died in agony, but usually very shortly after those symptoms appeared. Still others seemed to suffer from something in the lungs, tubercular in nature, and they died after a sometimes lengthy and always miserable illness. In some cases, the disease moved so quickly that it was reported that some people could be dancing in the morning and dead by noon.

Most scholars now believe that as awful as all the surviving evidence suggests the Black Death was, in reality, it was probably even worse.

If it sounds terrible—well, it was. But here’s the thing. Most scholars now believe that as awful as all the surviving evidence suggests the Black Death was, in reality, it was probably even worse. While overall the death toll was about half the population, in some places it was probably a whole village or an entire community.

Most of those who witnessed the horrors of the plague either died or had no means to record their observations— only 10 percent to 15 percent of the population were literate in the Middle Ages. Most of the actions of those who lived through the plague—the kindnesses and cruelties neighbors and families showed to each other—the majority of those stories are lost to time and memory.

In the next installment of this series on the Black Death, learn about the scientists who isolated the disease and discovered exactly how it was transmitted.

From the Lecture Series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague
Taught by Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.