The outbreak of bubonic plague which reached continental Europe in the year 1348 represents one of the occurrences that became, in the course of time, one of the main characteristics of the Middle Ages in collective knowledge and popular discourse. It became a metaphor for a catastrophe beyond measure, and for the (temporary) end of the civilization. But most importantly it became THE evidence for the dysfunctionality of medieval society, for the fragility of its moral norms, for the defenselessness of its health system – in short, for all the insufficiencies the Middle Ages seem to show when superficially compared with modern industrial society. The reasons for this exceptional position of the late medieval pestilence in popular narratives on the Middle Ages are many, but the most important among them may be that the epidemy is strongly connected to an urban society very similar to our own. Although late medieval society was a rural society, the absolute majority of sources extant from the given time were produced in the cities. Of the sources informing us about the pandemic, the absolute majority, again, concerns the impact of the pandemic in the cities, thereby making the whole issue seem very familiar to the majority of us who live in modern urban societies. The other reason why the pestilence of the year 1348 and its subsequent outbreaks have gained almost metaphoric quality is the effort to corroborate the self-description of modern post-industrial Euro-American polities as welfare societies led by science and therefore able to cope with similar challenges to those that pre-modern societies had failed to meet. As we may see through the example of the contemporary pandemic, neither of these is the whole truth. Crucial decisions, made by modern polities, are not always led by scientific knowledge, and time and time again medieval societies coped very well with challenges for which modern societies can only painstakingly seek solutions.
In the narratives of the mostly urban authors on the contagion of 1348 we may find descriptions of the same measures our own polities often very reluctantly introduced as the contemporary pandemic reached them. The practice of social distancing is one of the most visible and most effective: “All the shops were shut, taverns closed; only the apothecaries and the churches remained open. If you went outside, you found almost no one,” wrote Baldassarre Bonaiuti, author of the one of the most famous narratives of the outbreak of the epidemy in the year 1348, Cronaca Fiorentina di Marchionne di Coppo Stefani from the thirteen-seventies and thirteen-eighties (Cronaca Fiorentina, rubric 643).
The narratives on the late medieval pestilence pandemic resemble each other in certain aspects, on the one side because the progressions and impact of the illness in densely populated areas showed many similarities, on the other side because the individual authors drew upon identical narrative and interpretative patterns. The strongest interpretative pattern represents the Apocalypse and its rich medieval exegesis. The interpretation of the epidemy in the frame of the Revelation of St. John provided the experience of those involved with a historical, spiritual, and cosmological context which had a stabilizing effect, even if it inevitably led to the conclusion that the End of the world was close. Scenarios of the End of the world took very complicated forms during the late Middle Ages and just one sign of it, even as impressive a sign as the bubonic plague, was not so important as it may seem at the first sight.
In the second half of the 14th century the pestilence returned regularly, but the majority of the apocalyptic (eschatological)-prophetic texts extant from this period concern power relations between individual European polities. The main issue in them is not the pestilence itself, but rather feared reversal of the social order connected with the epidemy – revolts of the poor, peasants and the unprivileged were regarded as the main danger and main signs of the disintegration of the world. As it seems, the main concern for the authors of the individual texts – all of them belonging almost certainly to privileged social groups – was the risk of loss of just these privileges.
Employing great literary skills Bonaiuti describes the disintegration of families and supportive networks, as well as of the city’s economy. Besides this, he also gives great attention to the changes in the social structure of the city after the epidemy subsided, when the former rich were buried poorly and the former poor became rich:
“And many good and rich men were carried from home to church on a pall by four undertakers and one tonsured clerk. Each of them wanted a florin. The mortality enriched apothecaries, doctors, poultry vendors, undertakers, and greengrocers. (…) Woolworkers and vendors of remnants of cloth who found themselves in possession of cloths sold it to whoever asked for it. When the mortality ended, those who found themselves with cloth of any kind or with raw materials for making cloth was enriched. (…) This pestilence began in March, as was said, and ended in September 1348. And people began to return to look after their houses and possessions. And there were so many houses full of goods without a master that it was stupefying. Then those who would inherit these goods began to appear. And such it was that those who had nothing found themselves rich with what did not seem to be theirs and they were unseemly because of it.” (Cronaca Fiorentina, rubric 643)
The research on the late medieval pestilence has, in recent decades, been able to reconstruct the outbreak and the course of the epidemy in great detail. The impact of the epidemy on the individual societies was very serious, had many facets, and took a long time. In this respect, the history of the epidemy may teach us many important lessons. For example, the one concerning the fear of the rich parts of the society that they should not lose their privileged positions, a fear which may seriously impede any joint and well organized attempts to absorb the losses, nor to avert the risk that the weakest and poorest will pay the highest toll in any imaginable respect.