01/03/07 - the plague

In today's excerpt - the plague or Black Death, which lasted from 1347 to 1349, and was responsible for the deaths of between 30 and 50 percent of Europe's population:

"[The] plague ... first appeared in Constantinople in the spring 1347 ... introduced by fleas which were in turn unually (though not invariably) carried by the rats that infested all ships coming from the east. Curiously enough, these rats were themselves relatively new arrivals in Europe, the first of them having probably been brought in on ships carrying Crusaders back from Palestine ...

"[An] anonymous contemporary chronicler ... claim[ed] that in Constantinople plague accounted for [the deaths of] eight-ninths of its entire population. ... Of all Italian cities, Florence suffered most. Contemporary assessments are famously unreliable, but there is good evidence that out of a total Florentine population estimated at some 95,000, between 50,000 and 60,000 were dead within six months of the outbreak. Boccaccio himself provides us with an unforgettable description: the headlong flight of whole populations from the cities and towns, abandoning their houses and possessions; the way in which the sick—even sick children—were left to their fate with no one daring to approach them ...

"Wherever it struck, the most pious of the population withdrew to pray; particularly in the major cities of the north, however, the predominant reaction to imminent death seems to have been a feverish and frenetic gaiety. And why not? If God had deserted his people, why should his commandments be obeyed? If their lives were to be so cruelly cut short, let their last days be devoted to pleasure, whether that of the table the bottle or the bed—or, ideally, all three. In Paris— where such delights have never been undervalued—there seems to have been what amounted to a complete breakdown in morality, both private and public. ...

"The Black Death took a greater toll of life than any known war or epidemic in previous history."


John Julius Norwich


The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean


Chatto & Windus


Copyright John Julius Norwich 2006


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