The Disease of All Diseases

Thinking about the plague in India, I turned to a perhaps surprising book, Boccaccio’s Decameron, to see why plague should be, or should have been, held in such particular horror. The Decameron is a collection of amusing, somewhat saucy, tales. But these are told by a group of young men and women who have left Florence in time of plague; if they are saucy, Boccaccio says, that is because well-bred women in those hard times would speak more freely than in a later, more strait-laced age.

And that’s the mildest of the social effects of the Florentine plague of 1348, which the author claims to have seen and of which he has a vivid account. He begins with an assertion of the plague’s foreignness: it comes, in this case, from the East. Whether its cause is a conjunction of the stars or if it is a punishment for the sins of the city, Boccaccio doesn’t claim to know.

What he does know, although he doesn’t quite put it like this, is that the bacterium mutated in the course of its progress. This ability of a disease to mutate is one of the things that scares us still. Boccaccio says that in the East the fatal symptoms were a bleeding from the nose. In Florence, at first, these were replaced by swellings in the armpits and groin. Later, and no less of an infallible sign, the disease produced bruises and dark blotches over the arms and thighs and other parts of the body.

So the plague was a disease that didn’t stay still. It grew in viciousness as it went. And it changed its symptoms.

The next source of horror was its speed—three days or less between the onset of symptoms and death. Then there was the contagiousness. Boccaccio claims to have seen pigs come into contact with the rags of a pauper who had died of plague; they started to writhe as though poisoned, then dropped dead “spread-eagled on the rags that had caused their undoing.” So speedy death for man, instant death for animals.

Then there was the intellectual hopelessness of the attempts to deal with plague. Some people resorted to isolation and austere living; some to singing and merry-making and all sorts of excess. The latter group we might say coped with the crisis by means of denial. They sought out houses where conversation was “restricted to subjects that were pleasant and entertaining,” and these places became like common property. You went in and you helped yourself to whatever was on offer.

Another group thought the plague was more likely to punish you within the confines of Florence itself, so they sought to leave the city, or better still Florentine territory. But Boccaccio notes that many of these died without assistance. In fact, none of the groups came up with a theory that seemed to increase the chances of survival.

Boccaccio does not dwell on the physical details of the plague …

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