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“The onset of the Black Death” is an introduction to Decameron, a masterpiece of classic literature by Giovanni Boccaccio. Decameron, written in the years of 1348-1353, is a set of allegorical narrative tales about ten people who fled from Florence, infected by pestilence, to the countryside. In both tragic and humorous manner, Giovanni Boccaccio described “the moral and social chaos” affected by plague in that part of Europe, as well as the struggle of an individual between life and death. “The onset of the Black Death” introduces the reader to the time frame of the forthcoming events. Black Death that hit Florence, killed almost half of its population, taking away the lives of entire families and devastating whole villages. The Plague has dramatically changed European history causing social disruption and making people doubt God and leading up to the Crisis of the Fourteenth Century. Personally, Giovanni Boccaccio was familiar with the events described in Decameron, as he was in Florence in 1348. However, the author was fortunate not to be among those who “observed it [the contagion with the pest] with their own eyes”.
Giovanni Boccaccio begins his introductory tale “The onset of the Black Death” with the fact that after devastating human lives in the East, the “deadly pestilence” spread its grave impact in the glorious city of Florence. To be exact, the earliest roots of the plague date back to the pre-Christian era. According to Diane Zahler, the symptoms indicating plague were found in a medical text the Ebers Papyrus, written in ancient Egypt in 1500 B.C.. Walter Wyman also asserts that the earliest centers of infectious pestilence were in Northern Africa and Athens; Biblical texts referred to plague as a specifically Egyptian disease. After spreading to Asia and killing millions of people in China, plague reached Europe and prevailed in many countries.
According to Wyman, the first measures to control the spread of the disease were initiated in Venice, by appointing public health guardians. In “The onset of the Black Death,” Giovanni Boccaccio also provides information that Florentine officials undertook health care measures, such as city disinfection and safety precautions, that were, unfortunately, ineffective to stop the contagion.
In “The onset of the Black Death,” the author dwells on the symptoms of the Plague and how the disease developed in a human body. Though Decameron is a literary work and the symptoms are described by the author as “miraculous”, its introduction presents enough evidence for a reader to understand what kind of a disease a plague is. Thus, the author describes the first signs of the pestilence to be tumors in the groin or armpits that spread all over the body, then changed into black spots and caused inevitable death in three days. The publications of the surgeon-general Walter Wyman reassure in the authenticity of these facts: plague is characterized by the inflammation of glands that contain plague bacillus and grow as large as an egg causing death usually within forty-eight hours. Boccaccio is also absolutely right, stating that nobody knew the cure for the plague at that time; those who prescribed remedies, failed to provide recovery for this disease because of the “ignorance of its source”. Indeed, medical knowledge in Medieval Europe was insufficient to fight against plague. Nobody could understand the cause of the disease, how it spread and whether it would ever come to an end. As doctors were of little help and would rather hurt (because of lack of knowledge) than cure, people turned to God and prayers in desperation. They thought that the disease was cast upon them by God as a punishment for their sins.
In order to create a lasting impression on the reader about the devastating effect of the plague, Giovanni Boccaccio, from his experience, describes a scene, where two hogs fell down from an immediate death after touching the rags of a man who died from pestilence. The author compares the spread of the plague with the fire that “devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it”. Truly, an individual can get a disease by inhaling infected dust, touching infected materials such as clothes and bedding items or through a wound on a body.
Giovanni Boccaccio, further in this introductory story, gives a full explanation of how the society managed to survive during a disaster. No other person would be able to describe the events as vividly and truthfully, as the one who lived at the specific time frame and experienced the events first-hand. In “The onset of the Black Death,” Giovanni Boccaccio makes clear that people chose different directions on how to lead their lives in order to stay alive. Trying to avoid any contact with the sick, some of them grouped together in a secluded place and cut any communication with the outside world. They lived a moderate life with no luxuries and temptations. Others, on the contrary, were “reckless…of their lives”and spent day and night drinking and revealing with no limits as if it were their last days of life. Another group of people abandoned plague-stricken cities and their houses in search for a safer place to live, hoping that pestilence would not pursue them. Boccaccio dramatizes the fact that doleful situations and helplessness urged a brother to forsake a brother, a husband to shun a wife, and parents to abandon their children. Indeed, chaos reigned in plague-stricken cities; people were unable to save themselves, and it was common to see children, neglected by their parents, wandering the streets in search of food and help.
Giovanni Boccaccio also reveals information about a burial procedure of that time. He explains that massive deaths forced people to forsake customary rituals of funeral. Thus, a dead person was “no more accounted for than a dead goat would be to-day”. In truth, as the number of the dead increased each day and people just died in the streets, there was no time to conduct burial ceremonies. As a result, people had to resort to massive graving: the deceased were tired all together in a huge trench.
As can be seen from the above, “The onset of the Black Death” by Giovanni Boccaccio contains crucial information about the events when Black Death ravaged Florence. The introductory story sheds a light on the deadly effects of the plague on society and its vain attempts to fight the disease. As for the authenticity and reliability of presented evidence, Boccaccio’s work can be considered as a valuable historical document written by a person who lived at the time and in the location of the described events. Though the author may have used literary devices and exaggeration in the text to provoke powerful emotions in a reader, important facts are not ignored. Thus, the introductory story “The onset of the Black Death” by Giovanni Boccaccio has merit as a source of historical information and can provide significant help for scholars, historians, and general readers.
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