By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
During the Great Mortality, some people figured that if these were going to be their last days on Earth, they might as well spend them doing something pleasurable. The accounts of these behaviors are less detailed and more anecdotal. They sound more like gossip.
Horrifying Introduction to Decameron
One of the most famous of these accounts comes from a fairly reliable source—Giovanni Boccaccio—who, in the introduction to the Decameron, famously detailed the horrors of the plague when it first struck Florence. He wrote of victims dropping dead in the streets, of the dead buried in mass graves, of people abandoning not only the city but also their friends and neighbors. But then he says:
Others maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke. They would visit one tavern after another, drinking all day and night to immoderate excess.
And to be sure, this does seem to have been the case. Some people gave in to desire and excess, but it doesn’t seem that any full-fledged drunken orgies were taking place regularly.
Rather, it seems that in some of the accounts, what we see is the writer expressing a sense that the whole of society as it has existed up to this point is coming to an end; a description of scandalous behavior on the part of survivors is merely an exclamation point to the death sentence of the plague.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.
Breakdown of Societal Order During the Great Mortality
In John of Reading’s account of a later outbreak of the plague in 1361, we see signs that—in John’s eyes at least—the social order was completely breaking down:
This year, the mortality was particularly of males, who were devoured in great numbers by the pestilence. However, the greatest cause of grief was provided by the behavior of the women. Widows, forgetting the love they had borne towards their first husbands, rushed into the arms of foreigners or, in many cases, of kinsmen and shamelessly gave birth to bastards conceived in adultery. It was even claimed that in many places, brothers took their sisters to wife. Afterwards, many, regardless of status, class, or degree, no longer worried about sexual lapses, for they now regarded fornication, incest, or adultery as a game rather than a sin.
Now, although John was speaking of an outbreak that’s a decade or so later than the first wave of the plague, he made a point of saying that this licentiousness was exactly like last time. And certainly, there were plenty of stories about communities or groups of people giving into hedonism in a sort of last going away party.
Learn more about artistic responses to the Black Death.
Dancing Parties During the Black Death
Indeed, one response to the plague seems to have been something called choreomania, in which people participated in dancing parties. We tend to see the choreomania during later outbreaks, especially in the 1370s, but we can regard them as the successors to those people who gave in to hedonism during the first outbreak in the 1340s.
This movement, like the flagellant movement, seemed to have sprung up mostly in the Rhineland and Flanders, especially in the towns of Cologne, Metz, Liège, and Treves. According to an anonymous contemporary chronicler, in response to a new wave of plague:
People began to dance and rush about; they formed groups of three and danced in one place for half a day, and while dancing, they fell to the ground and allowed others to trample on their bodies. By this, they believed that they could cure themselves of illness. In the town of Cologne alone, more than 500 dancers were to be found.
What’s even more scandalous, according to this chronicler, was that most of the women who participated in these dances were both unmarried and pregnant. Clearly, what was happening here was that we’re seeing a link being suggested between licentious behavior and God’s decision to send the plague to ravage humanity.
Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.
But not everyone looked at these dancing parties and their participants with disdain. Indeed, some communities, especially during later outbreaks, actually organized dances for the whole town. In some instances, these dances were supposedly meant to act as some sort of force that would keep the plague at bay.
There is a story that the citizens of Basle, during a plague outbreak, would go and dance around a pine tree on a plain known as the Witch’s Mead until the infection had worked its way through their community and was on to the next.
In other communities, these dance parties were conceived of as a way of trying to lift the depression that was sure to attend an outbreak of disease. Indeed, celebratory annual dance parties that still take place to this day in many towns trace their origins back to the days of the plague.
Common Questions about the Last Days of Pleasure During the Great Mortality
First of all, most of these accounts during the Great Mortality sound like anecdotes and gossip, especially when compared to the Flagellant movement accounts. Secondly, some of the writers of these accounts were expressing the sense that society was coming to an end.
Some people during the Great Mortality thought that heavy drinking was an infallible way of warding off the plague. Some just treated it as a joke and shrugged it off.
Dancing parties were organized in townd to lift the spirits of the townspeople during the Great Mortality. In some places, the participants believed their dancing would ultimately lead to a cure.