Marchionne di Coppo di Stefano Buonaiuti

Florentine Chronicle of Marchionne di Coppo di Stefano Buonaiuti (1327-1385)

Tr. by Jonathan Usher, Univ. of Edinburgh

A small land-owner who was not a member of any of the Arti, Marchionne was active politically in the 1370s, undertaking numerous embassies, and acting as podestà of outlying towns. His chronicle was started in the late 1370s as his political career ran into trouble, and follows Villani for the early history. The critical edition was established by Niccolò Rodolico in the new series Rerum Italicum Scriptores, vol. 30 (Città del Castello, 1903 onwards): the Italian text translated here can be found in R. Palmarocchi (ed.), Cronisti del Trecento (Milan-Rome, 1935), pp. 647-652.

Marchionne's account, written some three decades after the great pestilence, is not just an example of a testimony filtered through now distant memory, with all the complex transformations that such a process entails, but also of a text written after the publication of the Decameron and its famous plague introduction, whose influence is certainly present in Marchionne's treatment. This Cronica is a fine illustration, then, of how prestigious, literary writing can swiftly produce intertextual echoes in a non-literary, or sub-literary genre. Though covering similar ground to Boccaccio's plague introduction (including the formation of ten-person brigate), it is interesting to note the solid emphasis Marchionne places on economic disruption and tentative countermeasures.

Rubric 634a

Concerning a deadly outbreak of disease which happened in the city of Florence, where many people died.

In the year of our lord 1348 there occurred in the city and contado of Florence a great pestilence, and such was its fury and violence that in whatever household it took hold, whosoever took care of the sick, all the carers died of the same illness, and almost nobody survived beyond the fourth day, neither doctors nor medicine proving of any avail, and there appeared to be no remedy, either because those illnesses were not yet recognised, or because doctors had never previously had cause to study them properly. Such was the fear that nobody knew what to do: when it caught hold in a household, it often happened that not a single person escaped death. And it wasn't just men and women: even sentient animals such as dogs and cats, hens, oxen, donkeys and sheep, died from that same disease and with those symptoms, and almost none who displayed those symptoms, or very few indeed, effected a recovery. Those symptoms were as follows: either between the thigh and the body, in the groin region, or under the armpit, there appeared a lump, and a sudden fever, and when the victim spat, he spat blood mixed with saliva, and none of those who spat blood survived. Such was the terror this caused that seeing it take hold in a household, as soon as it started, nobody remained: everybody abandoned the dwelling in fear, and fled to another; some fled into the city and others into the countryside. No doctors were to be found, because they were dying like everybody else; those who could be found wanted exorbitant fees cash-in-hand before entering the house, and having entered, they took the patient's pulse with their heads turned away, and assayed the urine samples from afar, with aromatic herbs held to their noses. Sons abandoned fathers, husbands wives, wives husbands, one brother the other, one sister the other. The city was reduced to bearing the dead to burial; many died who at their passing had neither confession nor last sacraments, and many died unseen, and many died of hunger, for when somebody took ill to his bed, the other occupants in panic told him: 'I'm going for the doctor'; and quietly locked the door from the outside and didn't come back. The victim, abandoned by both people and nourishment, yet kept constant company by fever, wasted away. Many were those who begged their families not to abandon them; when evening came, the relatives said to the patient: 'So that you don't have to wake up the people looking after you at night, asking for things, because this is going on day and night, you yourself can reach for cakes and wine or water, here they are on the shelf above your bed, you can get the stuff when you want'. And when the patient fell asleep, they went away and did not return. If, through good fortune the victim had been strengthened by that food, the next morning alive and still strong enough to get to the window, he would have to wait half an hour before anybody came past, if this was not a busy thoroughfare, and even when the odd person passed by, and the patient had enough voice to be heard a little, if he shouted, sometimes he would be answered and sometimes not, and even if he were to be answered, there was no help to be had. For not only none or very few wished to enter a house where there were any sick people, but they didn't even want to have contact with those who issued healthy from a sick person's house, saying: 'He's jinxed, don't speak to him', saying: 'He's got it because there's the "gavocciolo" [bubo] in his house'; and 'gavocciolo' was the name they gave to these swellings. Many died without being seen, remaining on their beds till they stank. And the neighbours, if any were left, having smelled the stench, did a whip round and sent him for burial. Houses remained open, nobody dared to touch anything, for it seemed that things remained poisoned, and whoever had anything to do with them caught the disease.

At every church, or at most of them, pits were dug, down to the water-table, as wide and deep as the parish was populous; and therein, whosoever was not very rich, having died during the night, would be shouldered by those whose duty it was, and would either be thrown into this pit, or they would pay big money for somebody else to do it for them. The next morning there would be very many in the pit. Earth would be taken and thrown down on them; and then others would come on top of them, and then earth on top again, in layers, with very little earth, like garnishing lasagne with cheese.

The gravediggers who carried out these functions were so handsomely paid that many became rich and many died, some already rich and others having earned little, despite the high fees. The female and male sick-bay attendants demanded from one to three florins a day, plus sumptuous expenses. The foodstuffs suitable for the sick, cakes and sugar, reached outrageous prices. A pound of sugar was sold at between three and eight florins, and the same went for other confectionery. Chickens and other poultry were unbelievably expensive, and eggs were between 12 and 24 denari each: you were lucky to find three in a day, even searching through the whole city. Wax was unbelievable: a pound of wax rose to more than a florin, nevertheless an age-old arrogance of the Florentines was curbed, in that an order was given not to parade more than two large candles. The churches only had one bier apiece, as was the custom, and this was insufficient. Pharmacists and grave-diggers had obtained biers, hangings and laying-out pillows at great price. The shroud-cloth apparel which used to cost, for a woman, in terms of petticoat, outer garment, cloak and veils, three florins, rose in price to thirty florins, and would have risen to one hundred florins, except that they stopped using shroud-cloth, and whoever was rich was dressed with plain cloth, and those who weren't rich were sewn up in a sheet. The benches placed for the dead cost a ludicrous amount, and there weren't enough of them even if there had been a hundred times more. The priests couldn't get enough of ringing the bells: so an order was passed, what with the panic caused by the bells ringing and the sale of benches and the curbing of spending, that nobody should be allowed the death-knell, nor should benches be placed, nor should there be a public announcement by the crier, because the sick could hear them, and the healthy took fright as well as the sick. The priests and friars thronged to the rich, and were paid such great sums that they all enriched themselves. And so an ordinance was passed that only one rule (of religious houses) and the local church could be had, and from that rule a maximum of six friars. All harmful fruit, such as unripe plums, unripe almonds, fresh beans, figs and all other inessential unhealthy fruit, was forbidden from entering the city. Many processions and relics and the painting of Santa Maria Impruneta were paraded around the city, to cries of 'Mercy', and with prayers, coming to a halt at the rostrum of the Priori. There peace was made settling great disputes and questions of woundings and killings. Such was the panic this plague provoked that people met for meals as a brigata to cheer themselves up; one person would offer a dinner to ten friends, and the next evening it would be the turn of one of the others to offer the dinner, and sometimes they thought they were going to dine with him, and he had no dinner ready, because he was ill, and sometimes the dinner had been prepared for ten and two or three less turned up. Some fled to the country, and some to provincial towns, to get a change of air; where there was no plague they brought it, and where it already existed they added to it. No industry was busy in Florence; all the workshops were locked up, all the inns were closed, only chemists and churches were open. Wherever you went, you could find almost nobody; many rich good men were borne from their house to church in their coffin with just four undertakers and a lowly cleric carrying the cross, and even then they demanded a florin apiece. Those who especially profited from the plague were the chemists, the doctors, the poulterers, the undertakers, and the women who sold mallow, nettles, mercury plant and other poultice herbs for drawing abscesses. And those who made the most were these herb sellers. Woollen merchants and retailers when they came across cloth could sell it for whatever price they asked. Once the plague had finished, anybody who could get hold of whatsoever kind of cloth, or found the raw materials to make it, became rich; but many ended up moth-eaten, spoilt and useless for the looms, and thread and raw wool lost in the city and the contado. This plague began in March as has been said, and finished in September 1348. And people began to return to their homes and belongings. And such was the number of houses full of goods that had no owner, that it was amazing. Then the heirs to this wealth began to turn up. And someone who had previously had nothing suddenly found himself rich, and couldn't believe it was all his, and even felt himself it wasn't quite right. And both men and women began to show off with clothes and horses.

Rubric 635a

The quantity of people who died during the plague outbreak of the year of our lord 1348.

The bishop and the signoria in Florence having ordered a careful count of how many were dying of plague in the city of Florence, and seeing finally at the beginning of October that nobody was dying of that pestilence any more, it was discovered that putting together men and women, children and adults, from March to October, ninety-six thousand had died.


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