By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
Florence, on the Italian peninsula, was one of the worst affected by the Black Death. Given all the suffering it went through during the first wave of the plague, one might expect complete chaos in the Florentine society, disintegrating into anarchy. Instead, there were many instances that showed the people’s efforts to rebuild the city and take it to its former glory.
Once the initial crisis of the plague was over, Florence’s city leaders attempted to reassert control. One way they did this was to pass a law dictating that those city leaders who chose to remain outside of Florence and not do their duties would be subject to a very large fine.
The Ciompi Revolt
The Ciompi Revolt was an outbreak of violence instigated by a group of Florentine laborers who were not represented by any of the existing guilds. The largest group among the Ciompi were those who labored at the task of carding wool.
Starting in May of 1378, it started to become clear that something needed to be done to appease the Ciompi and those that had allied themselves with them. So, some reforms were enacted, but these were more window dressing than anything else, and in mid-July, in a wave of violence that swept through the city, the Ciompi took control. In August, the ruling elites—the Signoria—managed to claw back some of their power, but from 1378 to 1382, the Florentine government was essentially run by the Ciompi.
Learn more about the plague’s effects on the medieval church.
Restoration of the Old Order after the Black Death
In 1382, political pressures from outside the city and the worsening relations between the factions of the wool dyers and wool merchants meant that the Ciompi government was on the verge of collapsing.
This situation made it possible for a group of people from some of the elite families in Florence to intervene and establish a new government. The revolt was put down and a semblance of the old order was restored. It was one the most important effects of the Black Death on the population of Florence.
This narrative of underrepresented workers taking advantage of the massive depopulation caused by the Black Death to agitate for more power for themselves would be repeated throughout the medieval world.
Change in Demographics after the Black Death
An aspect of Florence’s demographic devastation was that the groups who needed charitable assistance suddenly changed. The medieval world was a place of high mortality rates.
For a long time, the highest mortality rates were among women and children due to the perils of childbirth and infancy. However, because the plague did not discriminate, the heads of households who had long been exempt from these mortal dangers started succumbing to them.
This meant there was a sudden rise in the number of widows and orphans than before. Given that there was a patriarchal society, there was then a huge need for charity to be directed at women and children who had no way of making a living.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.
Governing Bodies Make Charitable Gifts
By 1348, the Orsanmichele fraternity—a chapel specifically for the leaders of the guilds of the city—took steps to direct money from their very robust holdings of wealth to help needy widows and orphans. By 1350, other guilds were doing the same thing.
One of the reasons they were able to do this was that the Black Death had made them even richer than they had been before the plague. This was because wealthy individuals started making out wills in greater numbers and, given the rapid deaths of various other family members, in many instances a lot of wealth and property was consolidated into the possession of a single individual.
That individual then specified that their guild or parish was to inherit their wealth because there was no one else to whom the estate could be left.
Effect of the Black Death: Policy of Natalism
In the aftermath of the first wave of the plague, Florence found itself largely depopulated. The leaders recognized that Florence needed to have its population rebound. To achieve this goal, they adopted a formal policy of natalism.
It meant that they were actively promoting marriage and childbirth. The main way to do this was to make sure that all marriageable women had dowries that would make them attractive to potential husbands.
Thus, it was estimated that in the years immediately after the most virulent wave of the plague swept through the city, 20 percent of marriages were made possible by dowry grants that were given as charity by the confraternity of Orsanmichele.
Restoration of Florence to Its Former Glory
Quite soon after the first outbreak of plague, the leaders of Florence gave incentives to craftsmen and artisans so that production and services that had been disrupted by the plague could be restored. It was a problem if all the cobblers and butchers have died in the plague, because the people left behind still needed shoes and meat.
Those people survived the plague were able to buy farmland, and they then made deals with those rural populations for a profitable sharecropping arrangement—called mezzadria—that would benefit both parties.
The city’s leaders also announced the re-founding of the Studio Fiorentino, a university, in an attempt to repopulate the ranks of the city’s educated elites.
Learn more about the artistic responses to the Black Death.
Difficulties in Rebounding Florence’s Population
Despite the best efforts of the civic and religious leaders of Florence, population levels just could not rebound. This was mostly because in the second half of the 14th-century, plague would return to Florence on 14 separate occasions.
None of these outbreaks was as serious as the one that devastated the city-state in 1348, but these recurrences made it impossible for population levels to recover significantly. In 1427, it’s estimated that the population of Florence was only 37 percent of what it had been in 1347, and a true demographic recovery didn’t happen until quite late in the 15th century.
Common Questions about Restoring Order in Florence After the Black Death
The Ciompi Revolt of 1378 was an outbreak of violence instigated by a group of Florentine laborers who were not represented by any of the existing guilds.
In 1382, political pressures from outside the city of Florence and the worsening relations between the factions of the wool dyers and wool merchants put the Ciompi government on the verge of collapsing.
The policy of natalism referred to actively promoting marriage and childbirth to repopulate a place, in this case, Florence, after the first wave of the plague.