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Black Death and Its Social Impacts on Europeans

The Black Death was a deadly and devastating global pandemic of the Bubonic Plague that is still mentioned and depicted in various movies and books and remembered by people with great horror. The plague was peaking in European countries from 1347 to 1351, taking the lives of millions of people and appearing to be not treatable. The Black Death had a colossal cultural and social impact on Europeans. Thankfully, there are numerous accounts of the plague available for current researchers, and these primary sources can provide people with valuable information regarding the effects and causes of the Black Death.

The first European country to suffer from the plague was Italy. According to V6, there were several outbreaks in 1347, and while most of them were located in the southern parts of the country, one was near the province of Udine and another in the city of Genoa. Unfortunately, the following year was much more horrible, and the Black Plague filled all of Italy and spread to the east of Spain, almost all of France, and England (V7). Marchione di Cappo Stefani, an Italian statesman and chronicler, described the 1348 outbreak of this pestilence in Florence. According to him, people got infected after taking care of the ill, doctors could not find any cure, and “almost none of the ill survived past the fourth day” (Bonaiuti, 1380s). Men, women, and many domestic animals showed the same symptoms, including “a bubo in the groin, where the thigh meets the trunk; or a small swelling under the armpit; sudden fever; spitting blood and saliva” (Bonaiuti, 1380s). Having the latter symptom meant one’s inevitable death from the plague.

One of the leading social effects of the Black Death is also described by Marchione di Cappo Stefani. People started to abandon and avoid each other, and many families were broken up either by death or fear of being infected by one’s sister or husband (Bonaiuti, 1380s). Jean de Venette mentions another impact of the pandemic on society in his chronicle. In 1349 the Black Death began to spread to Germany (V8), and a year later, the whole country was suffering from pestilence (V9). Since science could not explain the cause of the disease, people, especially Christians, decided to blame the Jews (de Venette, 1350s). The author notices that “the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air,” and “the whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account” (de Venette, 1350s). They were burned, massacred, and slaughtered by Christians, some of whom poisoned the wells themselves (de Venette, 1350s). Therefore, the plague contributed to the emergence of hatred between peoples and cultures.

Finally, it is possible to say that one of the most significant cultural effects of the Bubonic Plague was the development of literature and increased representations of death in European art. For example, The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, is one of the most well-known masterpieces that describe a group of people fleeing from the disease. In his introduction to the fictional portion of his book, the writer provides a vivid and terrifying description of the effects of the plague on the city of Florence (Boccaccio, c. 1353). He compares the symptoms to those people had in the East and mentions black or purple spots appearing on the body. Just as Bonaiuti (1380s) noticed in his writing, Boccaccio (c. 1353) also emphasized the inability of doctors to cure the infected people. Indeed, it was a horrible and deadly period of time, and though current generations cannot change what happened in the 1350s, it is still possible to honor the memory of those who died from the disease and try not to let the epidemic repeat itself.

References

Boccaccio, G. (c. 1353). The Decameron. Penguin Books

Bonaiuti, B. (1380s). Florentine chronicle. Salem Press.

de Venette, J. (1350s). Chronicle of Jean de Venette. Columbia University Press.

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