“Whatcha reading about there Turtle?” asks my older brother Austin as he makes his way into the family room where I am in the middle of completing a history assignment. “The Bubonic Plague,” I respond. He looks at me with a face of pure confusion. “The Black Death. You know, the disease that tore through Europe in the mid 1300’s?”1He nods his head in understanding as he plops down on the sofa right next to me. “After reading all of this information, I wonder what it was like to live through that madness. I’m surprised that there were any survivors of the dreadful disease,” I say. “Uh huh… Sounds awful,” Austin says in an unenthusiastic tone. “Seriously Aus, what do you think it was like to live through that?” “I don’t know, why don’t you go back in time and see for yourself?” My brother had lost his mind. Time travel is impossible! “You don’t believe me Turtle? I’ll show you. Follow me.” With that, Austin hops off of the sofa and proceeds to make his way to his bedroom and I, the curious little sister, find myself following him. Once in his room, he goes straight for his desk and grabs the eagle feather that Great Grandpa Meredith had given him. “This is not just an eagle feather,” he states, “This feather was blessed by the tribal elders and handed down to Great Grandpa Meredith when he was a boy. The feather allows its owner the magical ability to transport back in time. The spirit of our ancestors dwell in the feather and will guide us in our journey.” I grab the feather and instantaneously we are swallowed up by a gray cloud.
Suddenly, my body thuds against the earth. My eyes slowly open and I realize that I am no longer at hop me in Charles City but in the middle of a town square! The square is littered with people scurrying around in all directions. Some of the folks were fleeing the city with as much of their possessions that they could possibly carry on their backs.2 Others ran up to fellow citizens begging for food and money. “Where on earth are we and what is going on?” says Austin as he slowly gains his awareness next to me. “Not sure where we are but the plague has definitely already taken over this city.” I rise to my feet and approach one of the men trying to flee the city. “Excuse me sir, I am new to this city. Can you tell me where I am and why is there so much chaos?” “Have you been living under a rock for the past few weeks? You’re in Florence and a ravage sickness has taken over our town and has killed hundreds already. You better leave while you still can.” With that he continues on his way. Why did the feather bring us to Florence? I figured it would have transported us to England since a notable amount of carnage took place there because of the plague.
As Austin and I explored the town, we soon discovered the reason for the many beggars in the streets. One had informed us that not too long ago, one of the ships that brought in food and supplies was turned away because the sailors were all terribly sick and the ports and towns did not want to take the chance of endangering their citizens. Since then, no supplies or food had been brought in. It was also soon after that people started getting sick.3 With virtually no grain, the folks who were lucky enough to not inherit the plague still succumbed to starvation and malnutrition.4 Now I know why the feather brought us here, this was virtually the beginning of the Black Death being spread from country to country.5 This must mean that we’re around the year 1347.6 As I looked around me and saw the thin boned beggars, I wished that there was something that I could do to help them.
We had just entered the area of town where the citizens lived and it was then that the effects of the plague hit us head on. “What is that putrid smell?” states Austin in a tone of disgust. “Death,” I answer. Death was right; the air was filled with the unimaginable stench of rotting flesh and infection.7 How do these people live in this environment on a daily basis? I was already beginning to feel sick to my stomach after only being there for a few minutes!
Everywhere that we went, the smell followed and intensified. Suddenly as we were walking, Austin spots someone lying in front of a house and runs to help them. It wasn’t until he reached the body that he noticed that the man was dead. “How can they leave the body rotting out in the open like that? They have him out here as if he’s a piece of trash waiting to get picked up!” Austin angrily badgers. He is about to bang on the door of the house when I grab him and attempt to pull him away. “Calm down Aus. Don’t forget, these people are being hit by a disease that can kill within days or even hours of being infected.8 When a person dies of this, you must get rid of the body to protect you and the rest of the family from getting infected. I promise you that will not be the last dead body that we will see on this journey.” The sight of the dead body equally disturbed me. At first glance of the body, I notice large, oozing egg shaped boils in the man’s armpits; one of the key signs of the disease.9 The majority of his slender frame was also riddled with the black pustules synonymous with the Black Death.10 His sunken in eyes and boney body reveal to me that he was also one of the many who lacked food.
After saying a quick prayer for the poor soul, Austin and I begin to continue on our journey through the town when we crossed paths with a group of men carrying a bier on their shoulders. It wasn’t until they had passed us that we noticed that there were three bodies already in the bier and there would soon be one more as the men neared the corpse of the man we had just prayed for. “That’s their job?” asks Austin. “Yes; they are called becchini. They go throughout the town and pick up the bodies of the victims and carry them to the nearest burial pit.”11 “Burial pit?” “It wouldn’t take long for the church graveyards to fill with bodies since hundreds were dying every few days. After graveyards were filled, they would dig pits or ditches to dispose of the remaining bodies,”12 I explain. Austin shakes his head in disbelief. “I don’t want to go anywhere near that,” I state.
We stop and take in our surroundings. There is a solemn wave encompassing the town. Priest are seen moving from body to body offering the last rites to the victims in hope of saving their souls.13 We pass a procession for a young couple who had succumbed to the disease. A priest, the becchini, and the couple’s only child make their way to the burial pit to say their last goodbyes. It was during this brief moment to let them past that Austin and I got separated. He was right by my side but now he is gone! After a moment, I find him finishing up a conversation with a townsman. “These people are in such bad shape,” he states as he nears me. “That man has watched his entire family die of the plague and a few of starvation! Since there hasn’t been any new shipments of certain goods, the prices of the food that they can produce like wheat, meat, and wool have nearly doubled and now the average citizen cannot afford them! To make matters worse, even if they had the supplies they would not be able to afford it because the majority of the Florentine bankers and merchants have been experiencing extreme financial difficulties.”14 As Austin continues on his rant, I realize that seeing what these people are going through has made a huge impact on him. It truly angered him to see the pain and agony that the people of Florence had to live through on a daily basis. “We don’t have to stay here Aus. We can go if you want.” “Where else can we go?” “We can go to England; they also got hit pretty hard by the plague.” With that, Austin pulls out the eagle feather and hands it to me and we are soon swallowed up by the gray cloud once again.
Our bodies hit the ground with another thud though this time we were ready for it. Upon opening our eyes, we see that we are in the outskirts of a medium sized village. Even from the vast distance, we knew there were survivors because we could see a few people moving throughout the village. After entering the town, a woman instantly grabs Austin by the arm and pleads with him to follow her. “My son is about to die and he needs to be read the last rites if he has any hope of eternal life. Please help him; all of the priest are dead and gone!” she cries. Without allowing a response, she pulls Austin into her home where a young boy is sprawled on his death bed. The poor child possesses the same boils and pustules that the Italian man had but they cover his entire feeble body. His cheeks are inflamed and his body convulses momentarily due to the high fever.15 The boy’s breaths are shallow accompanied with the occasional cough up of blood; again more signs of the plague.16 “Can you please pray for my son?” she pleads with tear filled eyes to Austin. “But ma’am, I’m not a minister.” The woman bows her head and begins to sob at her son’s bedside. “Please?” she chokes out in between tears. Though uncomfortable, Austin could not deny this heartbroken mother. He kneels beside the stricken boy and begins to say a prayer. After the prayer is finished, the woman thanks him dearly and we leave. “What just happened?” Austin asks still visibly shaken up from the encounter. “When the plague hit villages like these, most if not all of the priest would perish in the onslaught. With no priest, villagers relied on each other to pray for the sick and to give the last rites. That’s why she grabbed you.”17
As we continued through the village, we saw empty home after empty home. The plague must have been here for a period of time to do this much damage. As we pass each empty home, I find myself imaging the happy family who once occupied the home before this unrelenting sickness tore everything all to shreds. I had read that it was common to see half of an entire village wiped out by the plague but it was terrifying to actually see it right in front of me.18Though many homes were empty, we did not directly see any substantial signs of the sickness in the village except for the child that Austin prayed for and a case here or there. “It must be after 1350,” I say. “How do you know?” “The plague hit England in 1348 and had almost completely made its way through Europe by 1350. Judging by the few minuscule cases of the plague here, I would say that it has past and these are just a few rare cases of the aftermath.”19 “You should know. You’re the one who has been studying it!” Austin retorts.
Soon, we are encountered by a farm hand returning from the fields. “How’s it going?” Austin says striking up a conversation with the man. “Too much land and not enough folks to work it as you can see,” answers the man. After talking with the man, we learn that this village had in fact lost nearly half of its people due to the plague. “There aren’t enough folks to work the land so that just makes harder work for those of us still living,”20 he explains. Even though the work is harder, we learn that the surviving citizens end up getting more product back since there are not as many people to go around.21 “I hate to say it but it’s nice getting a little bit extra crops each time. It seems that everyone is profiting; we get more crops to disperse amongst us and our superior continues to profit off of our work and rent,” he finishes.22 After our discussion with the man, I can’t help but pity him because he doesn’t see what lies ahead for them. “What’s wrong Turtle?” asks Austin. “The man seems so happy that things are finally looking better but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it would not last long. In a few years, the market is going to tank and their superior is going to begin to lose money. The situation will eventually level out but in another decade or so things are going to spiral downwards until the peasants finally have enough and revolt in 1381.”23 “These people can never catch a break,” says Austin. “I’m ready to get out of here. I’ve seen enough death and disease for today,” I say. With that, I pull out the eagle feather and we are instantly engulfed by the gray cloud for a final time.
With one final thud, our bodies land on Austin’s bedroom floor. “Are you happy now?” he asks. “Yes, it was eye opening to see the subject that I had been reading about come alive right in front of my eyes. It seems that you have learned a thing or two as well!” “I may have picked up on a few things,” he says. “I have a question; how come you weren’t as freaked out over things like how I was?” he continues. “Well, I have been researching this for months now. I knew what to expect to a certain degree. I was still equally freaked out on the inside like you but I don’t make a scene like somebody!” I say jokingly. “You might want to tread lightly Turtle or you may wake up back in England with the eagle feather in your hand!”
1Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (New Hampshire: Alan Sutton Publishing Inc., 1991), 7.
2 Ibid., 33
3 Ibid., 30
4 Ibid., 30
5 Ibid., 27
6 Ibid., 27
7 Samuel K. Cohn Jr, The Black Death Transformed, (London: Hodder Headline Group, 2002), 83.
8 David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, ed. Samuel K. Cohn Jr., (London: Harvard University Press, 1997), 25.
9 Colin Platt, King Death, (London: UCL Press, 1996), 2.