Black Death in Florence. By this point with the course, we have a general sense of the devastation the plague wrought its first wave on the of Europe. We’re going to focus on Italy, and how that society was devastated by the plague and the interesting and varied responses that its citizens had to this onslaught.

Black Death in Florence, Europe

Why Florence?

● Florence is a logical place to choose as our first case study for a variety of reasons. Of all the city-states in Italy, Florence was arguably the crown jewel. While it might seem logical that Rome would be the place of greatest development and sophistication, with the relocation of the papacy to Avignon in France in the early 1300s, Rome had lost some of its luster and power.

● By the 14th century, Florence minted its own coins. It was very wealthy, and it had its own independent governing structure. Its two major industries were banking and the wool trade, but there were many others, and for each of these there was a very powerful guild system in place.

● City and the lands surrounding the city proper that belonged to it—the contado—were the most densely populated areas of Europe at the time that the plague broke out. Most estimates give the population of the city at around 100,000 people, with the contado comprising an additional 300,000 people.

● City was an advanced community. Literary giants like Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch; political and economic movers like the Medici family; and artists like Giotto, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Donatello were all emerging out of 14th-century Florence.

● City was a deeply religious Christian community, an important consideration when we remember that when the plague struck, most religious people believed that this was God’s punishment for sinful behavior.

Atacama Field Automatic Swiss Movement 1904 Watch
Atacama Field Automatic Swiss Movement 1904 Watch

The Plague Reaches City

Black Death in Florence

● The route the plague took to reach Florence seems most likely to have been through Pisa, with which Florence had a robust trading relationship. It probably showed up in Pisa in late 1347, and then made its way to Florence in early 1348. City records show that by April, there were 60–80 deaths due to plague occurring each day.

● The city leaders took several countermeasures: On April 3, 1348, the city leaders ordered that the clothes of all sick people and those who had died be destroyed rather than sold or passed on to family members. The city fathers also ordered all prostitutes out of the city. This may have been more because of concern about moral failings, and maybe a sign that some at the top were worried that sinful behavior had made God angry. The city leaders forbade anyone from Pisa or Genoa to enter Florence. If anyone was found in violation of this rule, a huge fine would be levied.

● This was not enough to slow down the plague. The number of deaths continued to rise, so on April 11 an emergency eight-person
committee was established—a medieval board of health. They were charged with making sure these rules were enforced and also that burials were carried out properly and promptly

But in mid-June, the death toll rose to 100 people per day, and by July and August, our best estimates are that there were 400 deaths per day from the plague. For all of 1348, it appears that the death rate was at least 20 times what would be considered normal.

● By 1352, the population of Florence proper had dropped to less than half what it had been at the start of 1348. Something like 60,000 people living in the city had died.