Investigating the Black Death Contents

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Agnolo di Tura was a chronicler in Siena, a city of about 60,000 some 30 miles south of Florence. In 1348, it was a great banking center and wealthy enough to be building what the citizens intended to be the greatest church in Christendom. But in that year, Siena was hit very hard by the Black Death. Di Tura, who survived it though all his family died, claimed that after the plague had passed, only 10,000 people remained alive.

Discussion Questions:

1. Besides the fact of death itself, what other problems caused by the Black Death did Boccaccio and di Tura identify?

2. What characteristics of the Black Death were emphasized by the contemporary observers read so far (including those in the Dramatic Moment)?

3. From the evidence of the map and the original sources, what inferences could you draw about the influence of geography on the spread of the plague? About the influence of human activities on the spread of plague? If you were a historian, what kinds of additional evidence would you try to find in order to support your inferences?

4. Given fourteenth-century conditions, what additional actions could have been taken to cope with the plague besides those described by the contemporary observers you have read so far?

5. What reasons can you give for accepting, and what reasons for doubting, the information given by Boccaccio and di Tura?

6. In your reaction to Boccaccio’s and di Tura’s accounts, what difference, if any, does it make that the two authors’ outlook and purpose were different? That Boccaccio’s account is part of a book that is fiction, and he did not speak from personal experience, while di Tura’s is a chronicle by an eyewitness? How acceptable is hearsay as historical evidence? How acceptable is fiction as historical evidence—what could novels, say, reveal about the historical period in which they were written? Defend your point of view.

Source 1: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated and edited by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 3-4, 6-9.

Into the distinguished city of Florence there came the deadly pestilence. It started in the East, because of God’s just wrath as a punishment to mortals for our wicked deeds, and it killed an infinite number of people. Without pause it spread from one place and it stretched its miserable length over the West. And against the pestilence no human wisdom or foresight was of any benefit; quantities of filth were removed from the city by officials charged with this task; the entry of any sick person into the city was prohibited; and many directives were issued concerning the maintenance of good health. …

It began with swellings either in the groin or under the armpits, some of which grew to the size of a normal apple and others to the size of an egg, and the people called them gavoccioli. And within a brief space of time, the deadly gavoccioli began to spread indiscriminately over every part of the body; and after this, the symptoms of the illness changed to black or livid spots appearing on every part of the body. …

Neither a doctor’s advice nor the strength of medicine could do anything to cure this illness. Few of the sick were ever cured, and almost all died after the third day of the appearance of the previously described symptoms, and most of them died without fever or any other side-effects.

The evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them seemed to communicate this very disease to the person involved. …

Everyone felt he was doomed to die and, as a result, abandoned his property, so that most of the houses had become common property, and any stranger who came upon them used them as if he were their rightful owner. In the scattered villages and in the fields the poor, miserable peasants and their families, without any medical assistance or aid of servants died on the roads and in the fields and in their homes, as many by day as by night, and they died not like men but more like wild animals.

Reflecting upon so many miseries makes me very sad.

Source 2: Agnolo di Tura, in Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (New York: Free Press, 1983), 45. T

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. And it is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin and fall over while talking.

Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could without priest, without divine offices. Nor did the death bell sound.

And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug.

And I Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands. … And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.

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