The Black Death, 1334-1353.

The Black Death is considered the first documented highly destructive event in human history. The plague seemingly appeared out of nowhere, killing 1/4th of the population of Europe, and then mysteriously disappeared. The Black Death spread quickly through infected fleas on rodents, causing devastating symptoms such as high fever, protrusions, and intense pain. Around 80 percent of victims of the plague died within two or three days of infection. The infected would also experience black spots as a result of hemorrhages, giving the Black Death its infamous name (Langer 1964, 114). 

The People of Tournai Bury Victims of the Black Death

Miniatures sur parchemin (couleur couvrante).

This miniature by Pierart dou Tielt from 1349-1352 is from Antiquitates Flandriae (Tractatis quartus) by Gilles li Muisis, is an example of how the Black Death influenced art during its destruction. This miniature depicts the villagers of Tournai (Belgium) as they conduct a mass burial in a ‘plague pit’ including participants of all ages and genders. Every person is shown to have a role in the burial process, highlighting the artist’s choice of depicting the normality of funerary practices as a result of the mass deaths of the Black Death. 

The Plague of Florence in 1348,  as Described in Boccaccio's Decameron

An interpretation of an event described in Giovanni Boccaccio, 'Il Decameron.'

This etching by Luigi Sabatelli from a nineteenth-century reprint of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Decameron depicts the Black Death in Florence. This book, completed in 1353, is a collection of stories about the characters’ attempted escape from the Black Death epidemic in Florence (Levenstein 1996, 313-315). This etching depicts a common instance of a mass grave in the process of burial, including victims of the plague, mourners, funeral processions, and religious figures. The artist’s inclusion of several Catholic symbols throughout the etching highlights the significance of religion in funerary practice and social response to the Black Death. In Il Decameron, Boccaccio depicts the plague as lovesickness, giving the characters symptoms of passion and sexual desire, rather than depicting the harsh realities of the plague’s symptoms. The plague as lovesickness and eroticism can be seen through the dramatic physicality Sabatelli gave the subjects of his etching (314-315).

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