Text – Bocaccio and the Black Death

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 Bocaccio and the Black Death

The Italian writer Bocaccio lived through the plague when it reached Florence in 1348, and it inspired him to write his long collection of stories, The Decameron.

I say that in the year 1348 a deadly plague entered the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful in Italy. Some people say that it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies, and others that it was caused by God’s anger at our evil actions. Whatever the cause, It had begun some years earlier in the East, where it claimed many lives, before it spread westwards, growing in strength as it went from one place to another.

The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a nose bleed was the sign of the arrival of death. It began both in men and women with swellings in the groin or under the armpits. These grew to the size of a small apple or an egg. After this point the disease started to alter in nature, with black or livid spots appearing on the arms, the thighs, everywhere. Sometimes they were large and well spaced, other times small and numerous.

No doctor’s advice, no medicine seemed to be of any help. Either the disease was incurable or the doctors simply didn’t know how to cure it. Many tried, though.

The pestilence spread so efficiently that, not only did it pass from person to person, but if an animal touched the belongings of some sick or dead person it contracted the pestilence and died of it in a short time.

As our city sunk into this affliction and misery the reverend authority of the law, both divine and human, sunk with it and practically disappeared, for those who were supposed to be its ministers and executors were, like other people, either dead, sick or so taken up with the needs of their own families that they could not perform their offices. That left everyone else free to make his or her own arrangements.

A large number of men and women abandoned their city, houses, families and possessions in order to go elsewhere, at least to the Florentine countryside, as if the wrath of God punishing humankind with this pestilence would not follow them there.

[…] The poor and even the middling classes faced an even grimmer prospect. Most of them stayed in their own homes and neighbourhoods, either because they hoped they would be safe there or because they could afford to do no other. They fell sick by the thousands every day, and having neither servants nor anyone else to care for them they almost always died. Many of them died in the street either during the day or by night, while those who died in their homes were noticed by their neighbours only when the smell of their decomposing bodies brought them to public attention.

There were dead bodies all over […] They would drag the dead bodies out of their homes and left them in front of their doors. In the morning great numbers of them could be seen.

What more can be said except that the cruelty of heaven (and perhaps in part of humankind as well) was such that between March and July, thanks to the force of the plague and the fear that led the healthy to abandon the sick, more than one hundred thousand people died within the walls of Florence.


  1. Does Bocaccio know what caused the plague?
  2. What were the symptoms he describes?
  3. Does he consider that leaving the city was enough for not suffering the plague?
  4. What were the consequences it had for Florence during the plague?
  5. What were the consequences after the plague?

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