ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Chapter Eleven of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


11. The Plague

Just before the middle of the fourteenth century, when Chaucer would have been just a boy of ten or twelve, the bubonic plague struck Europe. Never in the memory of living men or women had there been a catastrophe of similar dimensions, for in its inexorable sweep from the south and east to the north and west, thousands upon thousands of men and women died. Without question the plague, commonly referred to in medieval England as the "pestilence" or simply as the "deeth" and later referred to as the "Black Death," was the most significant medical catastrophe of the fourteenth century. Besides medical implications, it had profound economic, moral, and social implications, as well.

One of the most vivid contemporary accounts of the onslaught of plague is to be found in Giovanni Boccaccio's preface to the Decameron. Written not long after the arrival of the plague in Florence, Italy, this preface still stands as a source of historical information about the plague and contemporary attitudes toward it. It was not until much later--the very end of the nineteenth century--that medical people came to understand that the plague was caused by a bacillis called Pasteurella pestis, conveyed from town to town along the trade routes to the Far East by the salivary gland of the European black rat. For medieval thinkers, the cause lay elsewhere. Boccaccio was typical of his time in listing as possible causes the evil of mankind and the movement of the stars:

In the year of Our Lord 1348 the deadly plague broke out in the great city of Florence, most beautiful of Italian cities. Whether through the operation of the heavenly bodies or because of our own iniquities which the just wrath of God sought to correct, the plague had arisen in the East some years before, causing the death of countless human beings. It spread without stop from one place to another, until, unfortunately, it swept over the West. Neither knowledge nor human foresight availed against it, though the city was cleansed of much filth by chosen officers in charge and sick persons were forbidden to enter it, while advice was broadcast for the preservation of health. Nor did humble supplications serve.

The plague revealed itself primarily through certain boils or "buboes" on the body--especially in the armpit and groin areas. When these came, death almost inevitably followed in a few days:

At the onset of the disease both men and women were afflicted by a sort of swelling in the groin or under the armpits which sometimes attained the size of a common apple or egg. Some of these swellings were larger and some smaller, and all were commonly called boils. From these two starting points the boils began in a little while to spread and appear generally all over the body. Afterwards, the manifestation of the disease changed into black or livid spots on the arms, thighs, and the whole person. In many these blotches were large and far apart, in others small and closely clustered. Like the boils, which had been and continued to be a certain indication of coming death, these blotches had the same meaning for everyone on whom they appeared.

Boccaccio and others noticed that the plague seemed to be transmitted from one person to another, and that even the clothing of a diseased person could appear to infect others. Still, medical men were unaware that the disease was transmitted by fleas leaping from the bodies and the clothing of the dead:

The virulence of the plague was all the greater in that it was communicated by the sick to the well by contact, not unlike fire when dry or fatty things are brought near it. But the evil was still worse. Not only did conversation and familiarity with the diseased spread the malady and even cause death, but the mere touch of the clothes or any other object the sick had touched or used, seemed to spread the pestilence.

How were living men and women to respond to this disease that seemed to be conveyed even by the mere act of "conversation" with the dying? One way to avoid the disease seemed to be to avoid the diseased:

Various fears and superstitions arose among the survivors, almost all of which tended toward one end--to flee from the sick and whatever had belonged to them. In this way each man thought to be safeguarding his own health. Some among them were of the opinion that by living temperately and guarding against excess of all kinds, they could do much toward avoiding the danger; and forming a band they lived away from the rest of the world. Gathering in those houses where no one had been ill and the living was more comfortable, they shut themselves in.

People were so afraid of the mysterious and dread disease that they shrank from contact even with members of their own families:

Even relatives visited their folks little or never, and when they did they communicated from a distance. The calamity had instilled such horror into the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncles, sisters and wives left their dear ones to perish and, what is more serious and almost incredible, parents avoided visiting or nursing their very children, as though these were not their own flesh.

Cities struck by the plague were the most dangerous places to live in plague times, for there it was almost impossible to avoid the dead and the dying. The desire to flee the infected city of Florence, incidentally, was the basis for the fictional 100 tales of the Decameron. In his preface Boccaccio tells how ten young men and women decided to escape the plague by traveling around the countryside. To entertain each other on their travels, they each told a tale on each of ten successive days. Chaucer, of course, selected a different reason for having a group of travelers tell each other tales, but it is almost certain that he knew of Boccaccio's Decameron.

Although those who could afford it often elected to seek safety in isolation or in traveling, not everyone did so:

Others, arriving at a contrary conclusion, held that plenty of drinking and enjoyment, singing and free living and the gratification of the appetite in every possible way, letting the devil take the hindmost, was the best preventative of such a malady; and as far as they could, they suited the action to the word. Day and night they went from one tavern to another drinking and carousing unrestrainedly.

In the end, of course, especially in parts of cities occupied by the lower and middle classes, there was death, inevitable and horrible:

More wretched still were the circumstances of the common people and, for a great part, of the middle class, for, confined to their homes either by hope of safety or by poverty, and restricted to their own sections, they fell sick daily by thousands. There, devoid of help or care, they died almost without redemption. A great many breathed their last in the public streets, day and night; a large number perished in their homes, and it was only by the stench of their decaying bodies that they proclaimed their death to their neighbors. Everywhere the city was teeming with corpses. A general course was now adopted by the people, more out of fear of contagion than of any charity they felt toward the dead. Alone, or with the assistance of whatever bearers they could muster, they would drag the corpses out of their homes and pile them in front of the doors, where often, of a morning, countless bodies might be seen. Biers were sent for. When none was to be had, the dead were laid upon ordinary boards, two or three at once. It was not infrequent to see a single bier carrying husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and others besides.

What was to be done with all the bodies that were picked up and dragged away? Haste and economy were the orders of the day:

So many bodies were brought to the churches every day that the consecrated ground did not suffice to hold them, particularly according to the ancient custom of giving each corpse its individual place. Huge trenches were dug in the crowded churchyards and the new dead were piled in them, layer upon layer, like merchandise in the hold of a ship. A little earth covered the corpses of each row, and the procedure continued until the trench was filled to the top. . . . Such was the cruelty of heaven and to a great degree of man, that more than a hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence.

It is impossible to estimate exact numbers, because in the fourteenth century demographic records were few, inexact, and irregular. The best estimates now are that anywhere from a quarter to a third of the population of Europe was carried off by the time the Black Death had run its course by the end of 1349. There were other onslaughts of the plague during the remainder of the fourteenth century, but none was as bad as that first one that caught such a large part of the population unaware of, and with no immunity to or past experience of, the terrible disease.

The medical impact of the plague was obvious to anyone who smelled the dead bodies or who watched the graves fill up with their grisly inhabitants.

The economic and social impact was less immediately obvious, but it could not have taken long for contemporary observers to see that workers who survived the plague were suddenly more in demand than workers had once been. No longer irrevocably bound to the land or to a given manor, good workmen found that they were being offered work, and cash for doing that work, on other manors and in the towns. There can be no question but that the plague contributed to the breakup of serfdom and hastened the rise of the middle class.

The artistic impact of the plague is evident not merely in the various literary references to it in writers like Boccaccio and Chaucer, but also in the many depictions of death and dying in medieval painting, engravings, sculptures, and woodcuts. The dans macabre, or dance of death, is found in enough artists' depictions that it might almost be said that the plague brought about a kind of obsession with death in the minds of medieval artists.

As for the moral impact of the plague, the question is complicated. We have already seen that one quite human response to the plague was to engage in irresponsibly riotous living--a response shared by the three revelers in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Boccaccio speaks of another practice that arose among women who found themselves infested with the plague and who would hire any charlatan who claimed to medical knowledge of the disease:

Once sick, no woman, however charming, beautiful, or well-born, hesitated to engage a man in her service, no matter whether he was young or old, high-born or low, or to reveal any part of her naked body to him if the disease required it, as if he had been of her own sex--all of which later resulted in immodesty in those who were cured.

A more important effect of the plague on the moral life of the people derived from the fact that among the hardest-hit groups were religious men. It must have been puzzling to see that those religious men who were most diligent in caring for and burying the victims of the plague were also those who in the greatest numbers contracted the disease themselves and subsequently died. In the end, the church was served by far fewer numbers than before, those remaining being the least conscientious and the least devoted to the spiritual needs of the people. To fill the gap left by the deaths of these religious servants, the church found itself recruiting, and then offering only minimal training and supervision to, a less spiritually serious class of clerics. As a result, there was increasing criticism of the clergy as the century neared its end. No one who has read such literary giants as Langland and Chaucer can fail to be impressed with the satirical darts thrown time and again at those who purported to serve the spiritual needs of an increasingly secular England. The bubonic plague did not cause the moral decline among clerics and the people they were supposed to serve, but there is little doubt that the plague worsened a trend that was already in evidence.

  • Primary source: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated from the Italian by Frances Winwar (New York: Modern Library, 1955).

Chapter Eleven of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

The contents of this page are copyright 2001 Peter G. Beidler.