Coping with Disaster: Florence after The Black Death


  • James Hatty


Ever since it first took its place in the universe, our planet has been shaped by the impact of successive natural disasters. Geological evidence gives proof of the ravages of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and major changes in climatic conditions in periods long before human life was evident. As humans spread across the earth, accounts of such events were transmitted from generation to generation, firstly by oral means, and then by the written records that enable us now to review the events of the past. Biblical accounts of the Great Flood and of famines are but examples of such records which may have their basis in oral tradition, or in actual events.    

This paper, however, does not focus on disasters which arise from seismic or other physical disturbances to the earth, or from its climatic conditions, but upon another form of natural disaster that is represented by epidemic disease. In his Plagues and Peoples, William McNeill (1976) describes the effect that epidemic diseases had on the shaping and decline of early community groups. Many diseases which now hold no fear for modern society were likely to be fatal in early communities. As a result, epidemic disease played a significant role in the decline of some community groups, and even civilisations. In the main, these epidemic diseases were described by translators of chronicles or other literature as 'pestilence' or 'plague' so that some caution needs to be exercised in interpreting such records for the identification of any specific disease. The natural disasters with which this paper is concerned are the visitations of bubonic plague in its various forms during a relatively short period in European history.