Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

“The Triumph of Death,” Italian artwork from 1485 demonstrating that with the right attitude, mortality can be fun.

Florence Plague of 1417

Now that’s what I call a plague!

When I thought pandemic, I thought Europe, olden times, and complete ignorance of how diseases spread.

If you’ve been waiting for a CLASSIC plague, this one’s for you.

Florence has five entries in my Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. If it’s warm and you’ve got trade, diseases are going to find you.

This particular “plague” was of two persuasions: pneumonic and bubonic.

I want to put an “L” in bubonic. But apparently there isn’t one.

15th century image of a “doctor” “helping” a plague sufferer, though why he thought a penknife to the neck would help, I’ll leave it to you to speculate. Man at left showing off his impressive BO. At right, devil wearing his pteradactyl costume.

Pneumonic plague made you cough up blood and die within hours. Bubonic plague, though it sounds worse, gave you a whole 1-5 days to sort out your business. Your odds of dying of bubonic plague were 65%. While you waited to see if your body could repair itself and limp onward, you would grow buboes on your groin, armpit, or neck. According to the Encyclopedia, the buboes “varied in size from a walnut to a grapefruit.”

The Black Death in 1347 was The Plague to Beat. Europeans were already acquainted with plague, and while the 1417 round wasn’t as bad as 1347, it wasn’t any fun.

Florence lost about 4,000 people, or 10% of its population.

Italians and pasta are as one, though not literally.

They had problems dealing with the dead, much as we did during the height of covid-19. A woman of the time reported that bodies were often not buried properly, but rather the gravediggers were merely “sprinkling dirt over them, like cheese between layers of lasagna.”

We know more about disease in Florence because Florence’s Grain Office maintained a record of the dead. The Grain Office ended up keeping these records because they needed to know how many Florentines there were to distribute grain, and they also were given the duty of enforcing sumptuary laws. That is, times when someone or something was sumptuous.

That’s kind of what sumptuary laws were. Someone had to ask gravediggers if funerals were too fancy. The Grain Office was in the business of keeping track of such things.

Giovanni de Medici, when you start talking about crypto currency at happy hour.

When do we get to hear about a Medici? I hear you asking. Here’s our Medici: Giovanni di Bicci, a.k.a. de Medici.

Giovanni got richer than Warren Buffett in the banking industry, and basically founded the Medicis are you learned of them in school. Giovanni insisted his kids dress and act like regular people. He didn’t want too much attention, and he wanted the people of Florence to not hate them, even though they were rich. He also acted like he didn’t care about praise or popularity. Maybe he didn’t.

Giovanni de Medici: even though he’s filthy rich, his lower back hurts, man.

For his time, he was definitely a lefty. In 1426 he voted for a property tax which was going to fall very heavily on his assets.

He used some of his vast resources to help during the plague of 1417. I really tried to find more detail about this, but I failed. So let’s imagine he sent every household a frozen casserole and a bottle of wine. That’s what I’d like from a Medici if I had the plague.

He lived to be 69 years old, which was, in that era, was great luck. His children ruled Tuscany and Florence for a long time, to mixed results. There were going to be two more major outbreaks of plague for them to deal with.

But that’s for another day.


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