Buboes, black spots, and bloody froth: it was all in a day’s work for Black Death body collectors. The plague, which may have killed as many as 200 million people worldwide, changed everything—including body disposal.
During the plague, millions of bodies piled up in Europe. Bubonic plague body collectors risked their lives to clear out the streets, all for a hefty paycheck—and sometimes the chance to extort people out of their money.
As the bubonic plague body count skyrocketed, with as many as one thousand deaths a day in some cities, the body collectors carted victims to mass graves, layering bodies and dirt, “just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.” While some reveled in the face of death by holding cemetary orgies, the body collectors worked day and night. Find out what it was like to be a body collector during the bubonic plague.
A dark plague swept across the globe in the mid-1300s, leaving as many as 200 million people dead around the world. As medievalist Norman Cantor explains, “Nothing like this has happened before or since in the recorded history of mankind."
To those who lived through the Black Death's ravages, it seemed like the end of the world. An Irish monk recorded the devastation in 1349, ending with a pessimistic note: “in case anyone should still be alive in the future.”
But the world did survive the Black Death, which meant someone had to cart away all the bodies. That was the job of the body collectors.
In a matter of months, hundreds of thousands of people dropped dead in Europe’s biggest cities.
Giovanni Boccaccio, who witnessed the plague first-hand, said that Florence itself turned into a sepulchre because of the piles of bodies. “Many died daily or nightly in the public streets.” For thousands who died in their homes, “the departure was hardly observed by their neighbors, until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings.”
The epidemic itself was a crisis, but it also created a major problem for cities trying to get rid of all the bodies. The body collectors had to travel the streets, carting away corpses in what might be history’s most undesirable job.
Body collectors had to remove plague victims from homes and from piles on the street so that they could be buried. But the bodies were not in good shape by the time the collectors came around.
As Boccaccio explained, plague victims had “certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.” After the bulging buboes appeared, “black spots” began to cover the body.
Buboes might burst, leaking rancid pus. Flea bites that transmitted the deadly bacteria Yersinia pestis could become gangrenous. If the disease attacked the lungs, the victim might cough up a bloody froth before convulsing with death. This only made the job of the body collector more dangerous.
The plague was deadly—extremely deadly. There were three different forms of the plague that struck simultaneously: bubonic, septicemic (blood-borne), and pneumonic (air-borne). If you had to pick one, you'd want to choose bubonic, which killed up to 75% of infected people. Septicemic and pneumonic plague had a 100% mortality rate.
Plague body collectors knew first-hand just how dangerous their job was. As Boccaccio reported, simply touching the belongings of a plague victim could transfer the disease. In The Decameron, he told a terrifying story of two pigs who rooted in the rags of a man who had died of plague. “Almost immediately, they gave a few turns, and fell down dead, as if by poison.”