By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
The Black Death was one of the most devastating plagues in human history. One of the most infected cities was Florence, which was the hub of trade and progress in the Italian peninsula. Hundreds of people fell victim to the plague, and almost all city dwellers moved to the countryside to escape the disease, which led to the depopulation of the city.
Giovanni Boccaccio, a 14th-century Italian author, wrote a book titled Decameron that contains 100 tales told by 10 young nobles—three young men and seven young women. This great work of literature can be considered a very slim silver lining amid the horrors of the Black Death.
Learn more about the medieval theories about the Black Death.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron
The premise of this text is that 10 young nobles have fled the city of Florence and headed to the country estate of one of the young people. They intended to take shelter there and escape the plague that swept over their city. To entertain themselves, they each take turns telling a story to pass the time. Boccaccio borrowed this premise from the famous collection of folk tales from the Middle East known as One Thousand and One Nights. This is a clever way of storytelling that allows an author to gather stories from different genres and combine them all together in one text.
In his introduction, Boccaccio relates how the horrors of the plague had turned people into terrified, panic-stricken individuals. Neighbors refused to give assistance to their friends, and in Boccaccio’s words, parents refused to nurse and assist their own children as though they did not belong to them.
He goes on at some length concerning how those at the lowest orders of the society found themselves in demand, and, in particular, a fraternity of grave diggers unexpectedly found themselves in a position to command respect and large wages. The details of Boccaccio’s account would seem to fit the horrors of the actual events that took place at that time.
Florence: A City without Leaders
As the plague continued to lay waste to the city, Florence found itself without any leader. Florence was essentially a small nation that minted its own coins and had an independent governing structure. Therein rose the problem of how one could run such a city when more than half of its leaders were dead or had run away.
Boccaccio aptly points out in his work, “In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city. For like everybody else, those ministers and executors of the laws who were not either dead or ill were left with so few subordinates they were unable to discharge any of their duties. Here everyone was free to behave as he pleased.”
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.
Crisis Due to the Black Death
There was a situation in which the city of Florence was structured rather like a pyramid, with a small group of elites at the top overseeing the merchants and guildsmen, and below them was the base of the pyramid, those who worked primarily in agriculture. If each group sustained the same percentage of losses, then one can see how it might have quickly become a problem.
The top tier of the Florentine society was under considerable pressure because the goods and services from the lower tiers of society, on which they had relied for so long, had suddenly increased in price.
By the mid-1350s, the estimated wages of skilled laborers had risen by 200 percent. Unskilled laborers also benefited, but not quite as much. It was estimated they could demand around three times of what they had earned in the days before the plague.
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Nobility Hit by the Plague
The only people who were not better off were a large portion of the nobility, especially those who had remained within the city itself. If one more variable is added—which was that the nobles were more likely to have country estates to flee to, and the wealth and means to do that—then the losses at the top of the social order might be 60 to 70 percent in terms of people still in place and doing their jobs.
Thus, this crisis caused by the plague quickly became a crisis of politics and social order.
Common Questions About Chaos During the Black Death in Florence
Giovanni Boccaccio, a 14th-century Italian author, wrote a book titled Decameron that contains 100 tales told by 10 young nobles that speaks of the horrors of the plague.
The city of Florence was structured rather like a pyramid, with a small group of elites at the top overseeing the merchants and guildsmen, and below them was the base of the pyramid, those who worked primarily in agriculture.
During the outbreak of the plague, the top tier of the Florentine society was under considerable pressure because the goods and services from the lower tiers of society, on which they had relied for so long, had suddenly increased in price.