GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, From The Decameron: The Plague Hits Florence (ca. 1350)
The first wave of the Black Death began in the late 1340s. The disease spread rapidly, and contemporaries understood very little about it, although they did associate it with rats. The only effective countermeasures were quarantine and isolation. The infection, which spread along trade routes from Central Asia, killed some 75 million people. Even after the first incidence receded, plague returned to Europe in many subsequent outbreaks until the 1700s, with varying mortality rates. In this document, excerpted from his famous collection of novellas, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio detailed the chaos unleashed in Florence as a result of the plague.
Dear ladies ... here we tarry, as if, I think, for no other purpose than to bear witness to the number of the corpses that are brought here for internment.... And if we quit the church, we see dead or sick folk carried about, or we see those, who for their crimes were of late condemned to exile ... but who, now. . . well knowing that their magistrates are a prey to death or disease, have returned, and traverse the city in packs, making it hideous with their riotous antics; or else we see the refuse of the people, fostered on our blood, becchini, as they call themselves, who for our torment go prancing about. . . making mock of our miseries in scurrilous songs.... Or go we home, what see we there? ... where once were servants in plenty, I find none left but my maid, and shudder with terror, and feel the very hairs of my head to stand on end; and turn or tarry where I may, I encounter the ghosts of the departed.... None.. . having means and place of retirement as we have, stays here ... or if any such there be, they are of those ... who make no distinction between things honorable and their opposites, so they but answer the cravings of appetite, and, alone or in company, do daily and nightly what things so ever give promise of most gratification. Nor are these secular persons alone, but such as live recluse in monasteries break their rule, and give themselves up to carnal pleasures, persuading themselves that they are permissible to them, and only forbidden to others, and, thereby thinking to escape, are become unchaste and dissolute.