The Black Death’s toll

There were many to echo [accounts] of inhumanity and few to balance [them], for the plague was not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual help. Its loathsomeness and deadliness did not herd people together in mutual distress, but only prompted their desire to escape each other. “Magistrates and notaries refused to come and make the wills of the dying,” reported a Franciscan friar of Piazza in Sicily; what was worse, “even the priests did not come to hear their confessions.” A clerk of the Archbishop of Canterbury reported the same of English priests who “turned away from the care of their benefices from fear of death.” Cases of parents deserting children and children their parents were reported across Europe from Scotland to Russia. The calamity chilled the hearts of men, wrote Boccaccio in his famous account of the plague in Florence that serves as introduction to the Decameron. “One man shunned another … kinsfolk held aloof, brother was forsaken by brother, oftentimes husband by Wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children to their fate, untended, unvisited as if they had been strangers.” Exaggeration and literary pessimism were common in the 14th century, but the Pope’s physician, Guy de Chauliac, was a sober, careful observer who reported the same phenomenon: “A father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead.”

Yet not entirely. In Paris, according to the chronicler Jean de Venette the nuns of the Hôtel Dieu or municipal hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” New nuns repeatedly took the places of those who died, until the majority “many times renewed by death now rest in peace with Christ as we may piously believe.” When the plague entered northern France in July 1348, it settled first in Normandy and, checked by winter, gave Picardy a deceptive interim until the next summer. Either in mourning or warning, black flags were flown from church towers of the worst-stricken villages of Normandy. “And in that time,” wrote a monk of the abbey of Fourcarment, “the mortality was so great among the peo- ple of Normandy that those of Picardy mocked them.” The same unneighborly reaction was reported of the Scots, sepa- rated by a winter’s immunity from the English. Delighted to hear of the disease that was scourging the “southrons,” they gathered forces for an invasion, “laughing at their enemies.” Before they could move, the savage mortality fell upon them too, scattering some in death and the rest in panic to spread the infection as they fled. – from A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978)