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The Plague Hits Florence
(c. 1350)
Giovanni Boccaccio

A merchant ship returning to Italy from the Crimea in 1347 carried a deadly disease that would devastate Europe, reducing its population by a third to a half by 1400, and reappear periodically in epidemics lasting well into the seventeenth century. The plague was especially lethal in more densely populated areas, like cities and monasteries. The affluent city of Florence, hit by the plague in 1348, had lost nearly half its population by 1351. We can get a sense of the social disruption caused by this catastrophe from the beginning of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), a collection of popular tales told by young Florentines in a fictional account of their flight from the ravaged city.

Questions to Consider
  • What social class is the narrator addressing?

  • For what reasons does the narrator urge his listeners to leave town besides to escape the plague?

"Dear we tarry, as if, I think, for no other purpose than to bear witness to the number of the corpses that are brought here for internment.... And if we quit the church, we see dead or sick folk carried about, or we see those, who for their crimes were of late condemned to exile...but who, now...well knowing that their magistrates are a prey to death or disease, have returned, and traverse the city in packs, making it hideous with their riotous antics; or else we see the refuse of the people, fostered on our blood, becchini, as they call themselves, who for our torment go prancing about...making mock of our miseries in scurrilous songs.... Or go we home, what see we there?...where once were servants in plenty, I find none left but my maid, and shudder with terror, and feel the very hairs of my head to stand on end; and turn or tarry where I may, I encounter the ghosts of the departed.... None...having means and place of retirement as we have, stays here...or if any such there be, they are of those...who make no distinction between things honorable and their opposites, so they but answer the cravings of appetite, and, alone or in company, do daily and nightly what things soever give promise of most gratification. Nor are these secular persons alone, but such as live recluse in monasteries break their rule, and give themselves up to carnal pleasures, persuading themselves that they are permissible to them, and only forbidden to others, and, thereby thinking to escape, are become unchaste and dissolute."


Source: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, ed. Edward Hutton (London: Dent, 1955), 1:13-14.