Black-Death-art - 10/18/06


"The Black Death in Italy!" by Marija Kotok.


NOTE: See also the files: p-medicine-msg, commerce-msg, Pest-Control-art, p-hygiene-msg, bathing-msg, per-lepers-msg, burials-msg, bog-bodies-lnks.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at



NOTE: This article was previously published in the July/August 2002 issue of the Fox Tales.


The Black Death in Italy!

by Marija Kotok


In 1346 an invading force brought more weapons than they ever dreamed of to the attack of Kaffa which was a port city in Genoa.


The Tartar forces of Kipchak khan Janibeg, backed by Venetian forces - enemies of their enemy - had laid siege to Kaffa in hopes of removing the Genoese from one of the cornerstones of Europe's defense against Eastern attack and Genoa's dominance of east-west trade. Kaffa was helpless with its supply routes cut off. Kaffa spent the next year barely holding on.


But all of a sudden, in 1347 their khans forces began to die mysteriously. Janibeg's army had unknowingly brought the plague with them. Janibeg had to cut short the assault as he watched his men drop around him. Not one to walk away from a fight gracefully however, he committed one last atrocity.  He used catapults to throw launch the Plague infested corpses of his dead men into the city. The Italians quickly disposed of the bodies. But it was already to late. The Black Death in Italy had begun! Hoping to escape the disease, four Genoese ships, departed from Kaffa and the rest is history!


The first symptoms of the plague were a chill and then a fever. Other symptoms included, but were not limited to, faces showing fear and/or anxiety, vomiting, thirst, loss of balance, mental dullness, headache, hot and dry skin, and increase in respiration and pulse. The Plague reappeared in Europe periodically from 1347 on.


Physicians of the seventeenth century had no idea what caused the plague.  Many felt it was a punishment from God, which they deserved in some way. People abandoned their friends and family, left the cities, and hid from everyone. Funeral rites became brief or stopped altogether, and all work came to a stand still.


Some felt it was a sacred evil, the rising of a divine punishment.  Since religion dominated life in seventeenth-century Italy, prayer was naturally an important weapon against the plague. When the plague worsened in Florence during the summer of 1633, an order came from the Commissioner of Health requiring nuns to pray continuously for the next 40 days for divine intervention.  But many others thought that they should obey the maxim, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die."


The government reacted to an outbreak of the plague by ordering the city to be kept clean, and by setting up a pesthouse (a quarantined building or encampment) outside the city wall, and by requiring detailed reports from physicians. Further, when someone died from the plague, his or her belonging were burned for fear that they might spread the infection. People who died from plague were buried in common graves outside the city wall, rather than at a local church as was the custom. This was because they thought that miasmas (tainted air) might carry the plague.  As it turns out this was a good idea because we now know that bubonic plague is transferred from infected rats to fleas, and then to humans; and fleas survive well in fur and carpet. The increased rat population in the summer explains the increased intensity of the plague during summer months.


The fact that no one truely knew at that time what exactly caused the plague did not stop people from coming up with various remedies and things to keep the plague away. These included a concoction made of "dried figs, nuts, rue, and salt" held together by honey, "papal pills" made of aloe and rhubarb to guard against the plague, and an "Oxilacchara" made of sugar, pomegranate wine, and vinegar to tempt the appetites of the ill.  They also procured bottles of healing water from the venerated Abbess Ursula of Pistoia as prescription against the plague.


The plague affected everyone in Italy in some way.  Once plague had broken out in a place, all other cities would stop all contact with that city.  No people or merchandise from the infested city could enter other cities. In Florence of 76,000, 9,000 died from plague in 1630-1631. Many people all over Italy were cut off from their families.


The whole economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation. And because it was so dangerous to trade for things the prices of everything went up drastically.  Due to the illness and death workers became exceedingly scarce, so even peasants felt the effects of the new rise in wages. The demand for people to work the land was so high that it threatened the large land holders. One effect of this was that fashions of the nobility became more extravagant in order to emphasize the social standing of the person wearing the clothing. The peasants became slightly more empowered as the aristocracy had a harder and harder time finding anyone to work for them.


The plague was a fact of life in Italy from 1347 thru 1720.  A deadly fact that threatened aristocracy and peasants alike for well over three hundred years.  Years that changed the nature of Italy forever!





Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Vol. 2. pp. 257-267.


The Medieval Plague: The Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York: Doubleday, 1971. pp. 1-5, 29, 45-49 Deaux, George.


The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969. pp. 1, 2, 43-49; and Gottfried, Robert S



Copyright 2002 by Marilyn Kinyon, 1598 Sawmill Rd., Hedgesville, WV 25427. <MamaLynx at>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at