Cities coping with plague

Because the plague had such a low rate of recovery and high speed of infection, it disrupted towns and cites more than past epidemics. Cities varied in how well they coped.

Probably the best-organized city in Europe was Venice. Venice, born in swampy islands of the Adriatic Sea, could never count on an easy life. No food was grown there; all had to be shipped in. Stone buildings were impossible on the soft ground until thousands of long logs were pounded into the ocean bed to form an artificial platform. The harbor was artificial, too, built as a planned defensive and manufacturing hub. Venice had three sources of income, all of which required intense social cooperation and planning. They made salt in the marshes along the mainland and carried a lot of other cities’ goods in their ships. They learned the secrets of fine glass from Constantinople and set up a secretive factory on a nearby island, on Willy Wonka’s model: nobody came and nobody left, except for those permitted to ship the finished glass out and the supplies in. The ruler of Venice, the Doge, had more power than other rulers of his time, and he even employed a modern spy network to root out possible infiltrators or traitors.

All of this helped Venice when the plague struck. Their ferry and canal boat services suffered many staff losses, but boats never stopped picking up garbage and corpses. The ferries to the mainland, now often for burials, never failed. The city had learned rigid discipline in order to survive, and that discipline helped them survive again. The death rate from the plague itself was just as high as anywhere else, but there were fewer victims of abandonment and neglect.

Some other cities in Italy fell apart completely, and London and Paris faced the same problems. Italy, a direct heir of Roman legal traditions, used a lot of notaries to draft and certify contracts including wills. Italian notaries were called to death beds to take dictation, with witnesses nearby to put their seals to the document. But during the plague, by the next day, notaries would find that the witnesses had died and the executor was sick; the heirs died before there was time to write a new will, and then the notary died. It was extremely difficult to keep accurate records, and at the height of the plague, death records can’t be considered accurate. We can assume that Venetian notaries kept plugging away, but in other cities, things began to fall apart.

In Florence, as in London and Paris, city services stopped. Officials left their posts and fled into the countryside (this had been a custom in Roman times too). As mentioned before, families sometimes locked a sick person in with a pitcher of water, refusing to come near again or even leaving the house so as not to see the end. But these measures weren’t enough to save them; Bocaccio reported seeing a dead man’s blanket in the street, nosed at by two wandering pigs, and within eight hours, the pigs were both dead. People, too, died as they were fleeing, abandoning or neglecting their duties.

City systems broke down. Bodies went unburied. They piled up in the streets, where pigs and dogs could molest them (and then die). They piled up near cemeteries where the land had been filled as deep as they could dig. Priests and bishops were afraid to go out and consecrate new fields for burial, or they were dead too. Whole monasteries collapsed with few or no survivors. Entire schools died.

If these problems had been severe for only a few weeks, society would have recovered. But the peak of the plague lasted as long as six months and more. It seemed like the end of the world to the suffering. Some of them decided that morality was a waste of time, so they ate and drank anything they could find. Some of them broke into houses to raid the pantries and party in someone else’s kitchen. They looted the houses of the dead. They drank to excess, to see if that would balance the body’s humors and save lives. I’m pretty sure it didn’t. They, too, died.

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