The Black Death changed the world. As the most profound epidemic in human history, the plague claimed the lives of millions, with nearly half of Europe's population perishing from the disease. Some feared they were living through the apocalypse amidst the chaotic upheaval, while others turned to sinful pleasure during the plague to distract from the horror. And as for what happened to victims of the plague, well, it wasn't opportune.
Surviving the Black Death wasn't easy. How did someone protect themselves from it and who did they blame when they got sick? What happened to their body as the infection spread? The only certainty was demise; after all, bubonic plague in the Middle Ages didn't spare anyone: monks and nuns perished alongside mothers and their children, rich men, and even royalty.
Here's how plague victims lived day to day.
You wake up on a cloudy morning in late 1348 and glance out your window. Outside, you see carts hauling off the lifeless, and you can hear the wails of mourners. You're in the middle of the Black Death, the most prolific epidemic in human history. In Florence, one of Europe's most prosperous cities, 60% of the entire population perished in a matter of months.
Spread by rats infected with fleas carrying Yersinia pestis, the bubonic version of the plague quickly jumped to humans. When an infected flea bit someone, the victim rapidly came down with symptoms such as swollen buboes in their lymph nodes. About 80% of infected victims passed within a week. But the bubonic version isn't the only treacherous pestilence spreading across Europe.
It's the 14th century, and everyone believes flowers protect against plague. After all, diseases spread because of foul smells, also known as miasmas, so flowers block them out. Just before the plague struck Italy, earthquakes rocked the ground, and the doctors claimed the earthquakes released pockets of "corrupted air" causing the plague. These toxic vapors targeted people, but many believed flowers provided some protection from the bad air.
Since you're heading to your new job as a grave digger (a growth industry in 1348), you figure it's better to be safe. So, you pick up a bouquet and hold it in front of your face as you walk to work.
The epidemic created a public health crisis. With thousands of bodies accumulating on the streets of European cities, authorities needed a plan to dispose of them. Florentine city leaders hired the economically disadvantaged to carry the bodies away. Consecrated ground was in high demand, and most grave diggers didn't bother to bury each body individually. Instead, they tossed victims into mass graves. One Florentine chronicler wrote:
All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried... Those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit... They took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.
Since you need the money, you spend all morning carting plague victims to the ominous graves. Once you dump the last of the bodies, it's time to leave but, on your way home, you run into an even more terrifying sight.
Boccaccio, an eyewitness to the plague, wrote dismissively of doctors who had no clue how to cure the disease. "Against these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing." Doctors themselves perished in droves from the plague, since they were frequently exposed to it while tending patients with almost nothing to protect them from the disease - other than flowers.
However, during this and later plague epidemics, doctors developed a distinctive plague outfit including an off-putting mask that covered the entire head with a long raven-like beak, which the wearer stuffed with flowers for protection. The sight of a masked plague doctor became a common, if not terrifying, encounter during times of outbreak.
On your walk home from digging graves, you run into a plague doctor. He says you don't look too good. Suddenly you notice the sweat on your forehead and a pounding headache. Could it be the first symptoms of the plague?